Putting The Bite On Corporate America

The chandeliers twinkled at the Sheraton New York as 1,000 business executives and politicians dined on lobster medallions and filet mignon. Donald Trump was working the room. But it was The Bob that folks had come to see. That's Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, the headliner at the $1,000-a-head event on Oct. 16. "Now, I'm not here to pick a fight with President Clinton," he deadpanned. "It would be no contest."

The crowd roared at that. For the most part, though, this was a pretty jaded group. Through most of Dole's speech, forks clanked and table talk continued. "They're all the same--rubber-chicken dinners," shrugged one bored participant.

No matter--his wallet was still open, as are many others at hundreds of similarly tiresome fund-raisers across the nation. Whether it's Dole on the dais, or Senator Phil Gramm of Texas or former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander or Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the 1996 GOP Presidential money sweepstakes is in full throttle. And "it's the most feverish fund-raising effort I've ever seen," says John M. Hennessy, CEO of CS First Boston, who has raised money for both Gramm and Alexander.

EARLY CONTESTS. In the first nine months of the year, the 10 contenders for the GOP nomination have raised a record $53 million, according to campaign accounts filed Oct. 16 with the Federal Election Commission. That's more than both parties combined had raised at this point in the last Presidential election campaign. Leading the pack is Dole, with $18.8 million, followed by Gramm's $14.3 million. None have caught President Clinton, who has socked away $19.8 million, plus $1 million more from events in Dallas on Oct. 16 and Houston on Oct. 17.

Each GOP candidate has a corporate niche. Although strong in every region and industry, Senate Majority Leader Dole is raising huge sums from insurance, gambling, and telecommunications companies--all with business before Congress. Gramm has called on oil and gas pals in Texas, and is popular with small business. Alexander and Lugar have targeted entrepreneurs. And though Patrick Buchanan's protectionist message turns off most execs, it's luring cash from some textile interests. "I admire his concern that we're losing the middle class in this country," says CEO Roger Milliken of Milliken & Co.

Never has the need for early cash been so great. In past campaigns, candidates raised funds for the New Hampshire primary, hoping a good showing would attract funds for later contests. At this time four years ago, Democratic contenders had raised just $2.2 million. But in 1996, 70% of the delegates will be chosen within six weeks of New Hampshire. GOP contenders must raise money now for these pivotal contests.

For all the wooing of Corporate America, though, there's disquiet in CEO-land. Some Dole backers fret that he's in a slow fizzle. Other execs like retired General Colin L. Powell. Kenneth L. Lay, chairman and CEO of Enron Corp., is a Gramm fund-raiser but says Powell has "great integrity. I would like to see him run." Silicon Valley execs are wavering, too. High-tech support was key to Clinton's 1992 success, but many CEOs are disappointed in him. And with California Governor Pete Wilson out of the race, they're not thrilled with the GOP field. "There is just no one I'm excited about," says Lawrence J. Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corp.

Jitters aside, Dole still has signed up the most high-profile endorsements. Among his big donors: the Baby Bells, which have won his support on a bill that would make it easier for them to offer long-distance service. BellSouth Corp. CEO John L. Clendenin headed a Dole fund-raiser in Atlanta that raked in $250,000--and FEC records show that numerous BellSouth employees wrote $1,000 campaign checks. Clendenin says Dole's position on the telecom bill was not a reason for his support: "I happen to think Bob Dole would be the best Republican candidate."

The gaming industry, too, is betting that Dole will look out for its interests. Many gaming execs supported Clinton in 1992. That was before he flirted with imposing a 4% tax on gross casino receipts to finance welfare reform. The industry now sees Dole as the one most likely to beat Clinton. So last June, Stephen A. Wynn, CEO of Mirage Resorts Inc., hosted a Las Vegas event that raised $500,000 on his behalf.

FALTERING MACHINE. Gramm's support is more regional. About 48% of the money he raised in the first half of the year came from Texas, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. His support for tax breaks and regulatory relief for oil and gas companies has won the allegiance of industry execs. Says Enron's Lay: "He's pro-free trade, pro-investment, good on downsizing government. He has so many positions that line up with the business community." But Gramm's money machine faltered in the third quarter, in part because he had a hard time lighting fires outside his base. "He's a hard sell north of the Mason-Dixon line," says one CEO.

For those without name recognition, raising money is a grind. Says Mel Sembler, an Alexander fund-raiser and Florida shopping-center developer: "Major contributors are either giving to Lamar because they know him or because they know the fund-raiser and are coming to meet Lamar." The Tennessean's campaign is targeting entrepreneurs by pitching Alexander's own experience as co-founder of a company that helps businesses set up child-care centers.

Lugar, too, has had a hard time broadening his appeal beyond home. Many donors work for Indiana companies such as Eli Lilly & Co., whose CEO, Randall L. Tobias, and other execs have given to their favorite son. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Lugar appeals to food execs such as William D. Smithburg, CEO of Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co. And childhood chum William D. Ruckelshaus, now chairman of Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., will soon host a Houston fund-raiser. But Ruckelshaus admits that "even if people want to support [Lugar], it's hard to get them to give money if they don't think he'll win."

With only four months before New Hampshire, all the candidates will be scouring the country for holdouts. With so much at stake, the hunt for dollars won't let up until every lobster medallion is devoured and the last ice swan is but a puddle on the ballroom floor.

WHERE THE BUCKS ARE

BILL CLINTON

AMOUNT RAISED $19.8 million

DONORS

Richard Jenrette, CEO, Equitable; Bernard Schwartz, CEO, Loral; Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO, Seagram Corporate America may personally dislike him, but the incumbent President has had little trouble persuading business to write checks.

BOB DOLE

AMOUNT RAISED $18.8 million

DONORS

Drew Lewis, CEO, Union Pacific; Boone Pickens, CEO, Mesa; Stephen Wynn, CEO, Mirage Resorts

Support comes from large corporations in a broad swath of industries and regions. Big givers: telecommunications, insurance, and gambling.

DATA: FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, BUSINESS WEEK

PHIL GRAMM

AMOUNT RAISED $14.3 million

DONORS

Harvey Golub, CEO, American Express; Kenneth Lay, CEO, Enron; John Stafford, CEO, American Home Products

Independent oil and gas producers in native Texas are fans, as are lumber companies, health-systems businesses, and small-business execs.

LAMAR ALEXANDER

AMOUNT RAISED $8.6 million

DONORS

Stewart Turley, CEO, Eckerd; Stephen Lynn, CEO, Shoney's; Ray Irani, CEO, Occidental Petroleum

Expanding fundraising from home state of Tennessee, with emphasis on entrepreneurs.

PATRICK BUCHANAN

AMOUNT RAISED $4.3 million

DONORS

Roger Milliken, CEO, Milliken & Co.; Thomas Monaghan, CEO, Domino's Pizza; John Breen, CEO, Sherwin-Williams

Has raised some corporate money from textile execs, who like his protectionist platform.

RICHARD LUGAR

AMOUNT RAISED $3.8 million

DONORS

Donald Fites, CEO, Caterpillar; William Smithburg, CEO, Quaker Oats; Randall Tobias, CEO, Eli Lilly

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee has raised most of his money from Indiana and Illinois businesses, some in food industries.