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The Club That's Clubbing Republican Moderates

Stephen Moore is a venture capitalist of a different stripe. Rather than seek seed money for new companies, the Washington economist prospects for politicians. And he uses his network of 5,000 "investors," known as the Club for Growth, to identify and underwrite candidates who pass a supply-side litmus test: lower taxes, free trade, Social Security privatization, and smaller government.

More often than not, Moore's efforts pay off. The club has won more than 60% of its races against Establishment-backed Republican centrists. Most recently, it helped conservative businessman Bill Simon to victory in the California Republican gubernatorial primary over left-leaning former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Indeed, the group's unyielding ideology, scorched-earth tactics, and willingness to challenge moderate GOP incumbents have created tension with Hill leaders and pragmatic White House operatives who believe centrists are often likelier to capture swing districts in the general election. "The party has its mission, which is to elect more Republicans. Ours is to elect conservatives," says Moore, the club's president and a Cato Institute economist. "Our market niche is to serve as the conscience of the party."

After just three years as a national organization, the Club for Growth seems poised to become even more influential in an era of campaign-finance reforms that restrict unlimited soft-money contributions and reward groups that can bundle large numbers of individual contributions. Notes club Co-Chair Thomas L. "Dusty" Rhodes, a former exec at Goldman, Sachs & Co.: "We have a lot of people with very big checkbooks."

That's undeniable. While the club was created in the mid-'80s by an archconservative angel--New York investment banker Richard Gilder--it is now a membership-based group with annual dues ranging from $100 to $1,000. Most clubbers are entrepreneurs, Wall Street money managers, or execs. The Club for Growth's model is EMILY's List, an influential liberal group that raises early money for pro-choice Democratic women. "They've done a hell of a good job on the other side," says Gilder, who hopes to build a political machine by 2010 with 25,000 members and 40 supply-side lawmakers.

One recruit is Representative Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Two years ago, the little-known executive director of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix was running for a suburban House seat. His economic purism appealed to the club, which supplied 40% of his $505,210 campaign treasury. The firebrand ended up beating three mainstream foes. Now he's part of a growing Club for Growth caucus that also includes Republican Representatives Ric Keller (Fla.), Mike Pence (Ind.), and Mike Rogers (Mich.).

Still, Moore & Co. have had their share of flops. Representative Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a prominent centrist, narrowly survived a nasty 2000 primary fight against club-endorsed Scott Garrett. And California businessman Jim Patterson was beaten by fellow conservative Devin Nunes in the Mar. 5 GOP primary.

Moore, 42, says the setbacks are part of a high-risk, high-reward strategy. "If nobody ever punishes Republicans for voting the wrong way, they'll always take the course of least resistance" and compromise, he says. This year, the group hopes to send that message to moderate Representative Greg Ganske (R-Iowa) by raising money for his underdog Senate primary rival, retired U.S. Marine Bill Salier.

Centrists may squawk, but such tough tactics have paid dividends that go beyond elections. Last year, every Hill Republican backed a huge tax cut after the club threatened to challenge any GOP dissenter. "They have a lot of influence," says Flake. "It's a scary thing to be targeted by the Club for Growth." Moore hopes every candidate gets that message. Remember those colorful red-and-blue maps of the U.S. showing counties carried by George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000? Well, Democrats are feeling very blue over a new poll that indicates President Bush would win reelection in a landslide. Even in the "blue counties" carried by Gore, 45% of voters say they would definitely vote for Bush, according to the Ipsos-Reid/National Journal Poll. The President's popularity is based on more than just the war against terrorism. In strong Gore counties, 58% approve of Bush's handling of the economy. The latest haven for underemployed Clintonites: Stonebridge International, a Washington global strategy firm that helps U.S. companies do business overseas. Stonebridge, founded by Clinton National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, has added foreign policy teammates including former Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff. The latest: Douglas "Pete" Peterson, Clinton's ambassador to Vietnam. It doesn't always pay to cry "Uncle" in American politics. Texas Democratic Senate contender Ken Bentsen invoked the legacy of his Uncle Lloyd, a revered former senator, in TV ads. In Chicago, House candidate Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton adviser, used his Uncle Les, a longtime Chicago cop, to highlight his crime-fighting agenda. Emanuel won his Mar. 19 primary, but Bentsen placed third.

The man from uncle? Media adviser David Axelrod handled both races.

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