By Paula Dwyer
Democratic Presidential candidate-in-waiting John F. Kerry likes to style himself as a foe of "powerful special interests in Washington." But with his campaign fighting off an intense media barrage from President Bush's megabuck reelection effort, Kerry has apparently decided that populism stops at the river's edge -- in this case, the Potomac.
On Mar. 16, some 300 Kerry fans from Washington's legal and lobbying powerhouses sipped coffee and nibbled Danish pastries at the tony St. Regis Hotel, on K Street -- Washington's Lobbyist Central. Guests, most of whom represent corporate interests in Washington, were treated to an impassioned pitch from New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to enlist in countering a "nasty and mean" GOP assault on Kerry's character. The price of admission: $1,000 a head -- which also will admit them to an April fund-raiser as part of a D.C. doubleheader -- to hear the New Yorker's tales of prosecuting Wall Street greed, mutual-fund corruption, and utility-company pollution.
It's going to take a lot of $1,000-a-plate meals to catch up with the President, however. The Bush campaign is determined to spend a record $200 million to portray Kerry as a vacillator between liberalism and extreme liberalism.
"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it"
The assault has already begun. The minute Kerry set foot in the key swing state of West Virginia on Mar. 16 to formally begin stumping for the general election, he was greeted by Bush ads attacking his 2003 Senate vote against an $87 billion supplemental spending bill for the Iraq War.
While Kerry did vote no on the Administration's request, he claimed he did so because he wanted to keep the pressure on to develop a better occupation plan for postwar Iraq and believed Congress should cover the war's cost by rescinding tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers. But Kerry seemed to play into Bush's "flip-flopper" charge by telling West Virginia veterans: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
The barrage continued the next day -- the anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Vice-President Richard Cheney lashed Kerry for lacking the experience to be President. Kerry fired back that the incumbent President has committed the U.S. to a nation-rebuilding mission with "with no end in sight."
The Bush team's strategy of rapid-fire assaults is forcing the Kerry camp to spend money as fast as the candidate can raise it. On Mar. 20, a campaign source says, Kerry is expected to reveal that he raised more than $40 million by the end of February. Not bad -- except that Bush is expected to report that his reelection haul totaled $160 million as of Feb. 29.
Small wonder Kerry is being forced to rely on a bevy of Democratic stars at an unusually early phase of the Presidential campaign. He got a hand from one of the party's most successful fund-raisers on Mar. 16, when former President Bill Clinton signed his name to an e-mail to 2 million Democrats, urging them to help raise $10 million in 10 days. Former First Lady-turned-New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton soon will send out her own e-mail pitch. Taking a page from former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's playbook, Kerry's Web site will track the Clintons' efforts hour-by-hour.
Dean is also helping out. He was set to announce on Mar. 18 that he, too, will raise money for Kerry, and he is considering a request to give the campaign temporary access to his golden donor list of 600,000 Deaniacs. Dean raised more money -- $48 million -- than any other Democratic Presidential primary candidate in history, mostly from small donors.
Kerry himself will embark on a 20-city, 6-week fund-raising blitz, starting on Mar. 29, with two days devoted to panning for California gold. The hope is to raise between $15 million and $20 million on the tour, says campaign spokesman Michael Meehan. And Kerry is moving to assert control over shoot-from-the-hip Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe by naming longtime Kerry aide Peter Maroney as DNC national finance co-chairman.
A slap at McAuliffe? "No," insists Meehan. "The party nominee always takes over the DNC. This sends a clear signal to the donor community how important it is to raise money for John Kerry."
Of course, the Dems' donor community, much like Bush's, is chock-full of the lobbyists, superlawyers, and business reps that Kerry likes to rip when he's at town meetings in the American Heartland. But for now, the Democrat can't afford to dwell on the seeming inconsistency in his stance on entrenched power in Washington. To counter an onrushing Bush money machine, he needs donations now -- and he's not about to question where the cash comes from.
Dwyer is a senior writer in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht