Democrats Trek To Park Avenue For P.A.C. Bucks

When Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s father, Birch, set off a mini-media maelstrom several weeks ago by saying that his son was giving “serious consideration” to running for President in 2008, the younger Mr. Bayh was quick to tamp down any public conjecture with a carefully worded statement about focusing on doing his job.

Less than two weeks later, on May 16, the two-term Democratic Senator was miles from his day job in Indianapolis. Instead, he was at the Park Avenue apartment of Constance Milstein, focusing on the time-honored ritual of meeting and greeting influential contributors. The ostensible purpose of the visit was to raise money for his political-action committee, All America P.A.C. But by the end of his trip-which also included a series of private meetings with a handful of big-spending Democrats-it seemed clear to some that he hadn’t come to New York just to make P.A.C.-chat; he had come to lay the financial groundwork for a potential sprint for the White House.

“He was quite open about his interest in the 2008 Presidential race,” said one prominent New York donor who met privately with Mr. Bayh.

For Presidential aspirants, New York City has long been one of the first stops on the campaign itinerary. It has become one of the most reliable places for prospective candidates to cultivate connections and harvest money for their fledgling campaigns. This time around, however, the frenzy seems to have accelerated at a particularly dizzying pace, with Senators, governors and even an Army general dipping in for meetings with prospective donors.

Is all of this just the inevitable result of a system that requires increasing amounts of money to compete? Sure. But many observers were also feeling the leading edge of the fund-raising cyclone looming on the horizon: Senator Hillary Clinton’s potential bid for the White House.

“There’s very limited ground to harvest given Senator Clinton’s role,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who ran Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 Presidential bid. “So most of the candidates are like the dogs beneath the dining-room table, hoping for surreptitious handouts.”

In recent months, a parade of potential Democratic candidates has begun trekking to Manhattan, cultivating deep-pocketed donors much the way they nurture primary voters in New Hampshire and Iowa. First-time Presidential aspirants like Virginia Governor Mark Warner and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and have popped into Gotham to shake hands with donors. And some veteran contenders, like Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, Senator John Kerry, former Senator John Edwards and General Clark, have also begun making the rounds. Never mind that the 2008 primaries are nearly three years away. For next cycle’s nomination seekers-and for the contributors who support them-the ’08 fund-raising games have already begun.

“Everybody’s out there looking and shopping and testing the water,” said Robin Duke, a former ambassador to Norway and one of the grandes dames of the Democratic fund-raising circuit. “I don’t think they’ve been raising buckets of money, but people have been giving getting-to-know-you parties. Anybody would be lying if they said they hadn’t seen any of the activity.”

All evidence suggests that the “activity” is warranted. In the heady world of political fund-raising, Mrs. Clinton is one of the most formidable fund-raisers, a one-woman rainmaker with a loyal following. Throughout the spring, she has been hopscotching from fund-raiser to fund-raiser, racking up impressive bundles of money for her 2006 re-election bid. (On June 6, New York Women for Hillary will be hosting a re-election fund-raiser at the Hilton New York that’s expected to draw some 850 high-powered guests.) The sense is that as soon as she officially throws her hat in the race, other candidates can forget about New York.

“Hillary Clinton is the favorite daughter of the state, so people are trying separate themselves out from the pack and be the alternative,” said Stuart Shorenstein, an active Democratic donor who has already received “invitations and calls” from the Bayh campaign. “There are probably some people out there who are not her supporters, and the other candidates want to gain traction among them.”

In order to gain this traction, aspiring 2008 candidates have to engage in a delicate dance between courting potential donors and playing coy about their plans. After all, none of the candidates has officially declared, and they won’t for some time. Most of the events that are being organized in New York take place under the innocent guise of meet-and-greets or fund-raisers for a candidate’s re-election campaign or political-action committee.

Privately, a number of the candidates have been known to acknowledge that they are “exploring” their options or “seeing what’s out there,” as Mr. Biden recently said to one prominent donor. And Mr. Bayh has gained something of a reputation for telling donors that he is “going to do it,” the same donor said. But publicly, these contenders are careful to stick to the script of raising money for their P.A.C.’s or re-election campaigns.

This approach is not disingenuous since most of the prospective candidates will in fact face re-election at some point and many of them do have their own leadership P.A.C.’s. But the approach is also a rather convenient cover, since campaign-finance law allows candidates to transfer money from one federal campaign committee to another-for instance, from a “Bill Richardson for Governor” committee to a “Richardson for President” committee. And the money that candidates raise for their leadership P.A.C.’s can be distributed to other legislators as a kind of down payment on their support in the primaries. In fact, plying influential electeds with P.A.C. money has become so popular in recent years that founding a political-action committee has become almost as much a necessity of running for President as having good hair and hiring a star campaign manager.

“If you want to run for President, you’ve got to throw some money around,” said a political insider who worked for one of the nine Democrats who ran for President in 2004. “You’ve got to fill up your P.A.C. so you can put a lot of money into 2006 races and build influence in the House and the Senate. And now’s the time to fill those coffers.”

Indeed, since at least as far back as January, Democratic hopefuls have been jetting off to New York (as well as Los Angeles, San Francisco and a few other high-dollar locales) to raise money for their leadership P.A.C.’s. On April 26, for instance, General Clark held a meet-and-greet for his political-action committee, WesPAC, at philanthropist Lewis Cullman’s Park Avenue apartment that was attended by some 50 people, including current Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and former Public Advocate Mark Green, now aspiring for the State Attorney General’s office.

At the same time, his former rivals for the 2004 Democratic nomination, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, have both begun reaching out to loyal New York donors to support their new political-action committees. Earlier this year, Mr. Edwards hosted a small P.A.C. party at Ron Feldman’s Soho gallery, which he followed up on May 12 with a daylong D.C. conference that was attended by a pack of New York loyalists, including Richard Thaler and Fern Hurst. Mr. Kerry, meanwhile, has sent out invites for what one source described as a $10,000-a-couple fund-raiser on Nantucket for his P.A.C., Keeping America’s Promise. He is also reported to be planning a series of P.A.C. events in New York during the last week of June.

Republicans, Too

But Democrats hopefuls haven’t been the only ones scrambling to fill their war chests. Faced with their own version of the Hillary problem-namely the potential campaigns of New York’s George Pataki and Rudolph Giuliani-G.O.P. contenders like Virginia Senator George Allen and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney have been making their share of New York appearances. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, for instance, has been “making a lot of friends in New York,” one insider said, as have Mr. Allen and Mr. Romney.

At the same time, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, whose Moral Majority roots would seem to make him an unlikely New York mascot, has been reaping significant rewards among New York’s G.O.P. faithful. During his most recent visit, on May 13, for instance, he flitted between three fund-raisers for his P.A.C.: a dinner in Brooklyn hosted by a long-time Orthodox Jewish ally, a morning meeting with a group of Wall Street bankers, and small powwow with members of a biotech venture-capital fund. When he was done, he had raised north of $50,000, according to one source.

“There’s a lot of talk out there,” said veteran Republican rainmaker Georgette Mosbacher, noting that Senator John McCain of Arizona held a meet-and-greet breakfast at the “21” Club on April 1. “Any day of the week, you could probably find a fund-raiser. But,” she cautioned, “it’s early for anyone to be raising money to run for President in any overt way.”

Most donors seemed to echo this advice, but at least a few potential candidates have been more aggressive. Among Democrats, perhaps the most ambitious contender has been Mr. Bayh, several insiders have said. While most 2008 hopefuls are still making do with a single national fund-raiser, the Midwestern Senator has already hired a powerhouse finance team helmed by Nancy Jacobson Penn in D.C. and staffed by Paulette Aniskoff in New York. And with their help, he has embarked on a busy fund-raising schedule, swooping into Manhattan at regular intervals for tête-à-têtes with potential donors and meet-and-greets for his P.A.C. His next big trip to Gotham has already been scheduled for June 26 and 27, when he plans to hold a series of small meetings with yet more high-dollar donors.

Still, for all this effort, it is unclear whether Mr. Bayh has managed to gain much traction within New York’s big-spending Democratic circles. While he has garnered early support from old friends like Wall Street investment guru Eric Mindich and Laurence Belfer, a good portion of Manhattan’s boldface-name Democrats seem to be, well, heading to the Hillary breakfast on June 6.

And the situation isn’t much better for the other aspiring candidates. In early January, attorney Joseph Belluck held a small fund-raiser with about 25 friends and acquaintances for Mr. Biden’s 2006 re-election campaign. The Senator spoke at the event and gave what Mr. Belluck described as “the best critique of the situation in Iraq” he’d ever heard. “I think people were very, very impressed with him. It was very intellectual,” he recalled months later. However, when it came time for Mr. Belluck to answer the question of whether he would support the Delaware Senator in a potential 2008 Presidential bid, the Manhattan-based lawyer sounded a common refrain.

“If we didn’t have such a great Senator from New York, he would be someone that I’d be very interested in,” said Mr. Belluck. “[But] she’s someone that I’m very impressed with.”

–Additional reporting by Jessica Bruder Democrats Trek To Park Avenue For P.A.C. Bucks