Election 2000: Ce Os Place Their Bets

And not all are backing the front-runners

Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore may be the media darlings in the race for the 2000 Presidential nomination. And they may have collected the biggest pots of money so far. But these front-runners haven't locked up support in the executive suite. As the Presidential election machinery lurches into motion, business leaders are determinedly playing the field. A BUSINESS WEEK analysis of corporate-giving patterns finds that, on the Republican side, execs are split among a handful of mainstream Republican candidates, with Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain clearly leading the pack. On the Democratic side, insurgent Bill Bradley is holding his own against the Gore juggernaut that the pros have been predicting.

Why are chief executives placing their bets this way? One clear message: Many business leaders are more interested--at least at this stage--in leadership and character than mere electability. CEOs "don't care what the polls say," says Richard Cavanagh, president of the Conference Board.

MAVERICK. Certainly, this sentiment might explain why McCain and Bradley--neither of them party-liners--are doing so well at enlisting some very big corporate names. "[CEOs] are looking for someone who has the ability to lead, the character that goes along with that ability, and a philosophy founded on fiscal conservatism," says Lewis Eisenberg, chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

Eisenberg says he's still uncommitted, but some very high-profile Republicans who share his sentiments are lining up behind McCain. The senator's maverick image, stellar war record, and longtime crusade against wasteful spending have won him support from the likes of Sumner M. Redstone, CEO of Viacom, and American International Group Chairman Maurice R. Greenberg. "McCain is refreshing, direct, and serious," says Thom-as J. Pritzker, chairman of Hyatt Corp. and another backer. "We won't agree on everything, but you've got to pick someone who you'd like to be your leader."

McCain has also earned some CEO support the old-fashioned way--by being in the right place to do business some good. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he helped craft the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in ways that the Baby Bell local phone companies favored. Now, McCain is getting money from such telecom execs as Ameritech CEO Richard C. Notebaert and US West CEO Solomon D. Trujillo.

The independent label also applies to Bradley, who quit the Senate in 1996, saying he was fed up with the way business was conducted in the capital. That appeals to CEOs who are also disgusted by the bipartisan warfare and scandals of recent years. "It's a no-brainer," says Sara Lee CEO John H. Bryan, who helped the former New York Knicks star raise $1.5 million at a recent Chicago event. "Bradley not only understands issues, but he's made the right choices over and over again."

A leader on international economics and tax issues during his three Senate terms, Bradley is a favorite of centrist CEOs. "He's an economic conservative with a social conscience," says Chase Manhattan President Thomas Labrecque. He has never before been actively involved in a Presidential campaign, but on Apr. 15, he will cohost a fundraiser for Bradley in New York. "Bill is very much in tune with the mainstream--not the extremes--of American politics."

With corporate allies, Bradley finished the first quarter of 1999 with $4.2 million in donations--less than half of Gore's record-setting $8.9 million, but quite a nest egg for a candidate taking on his party's Establishment.

"CHIEF GEEK." Getting early corporate support is key for any candidate who wants to make it past the New Hampshire primary. Not only are CEOs generous, but where they lead, other executives follow. Donor lists are carefully studied by uncommitted CEOs and can be a key indicator of how seriously to take a candidacy. "CEOs matter," says Bush fund-raiser Wayne Berman. "They bring credibility with the press and the political elite." For underdogs such as McCain and Bradley, a fat-cat A-list means "you can't write (them) off," says American University political scientist James A. Thurber.

One of the early battlegrounds for backing has been Silicon Valley. Despite Gore's seven-year effort to sew up high-tech support, rivals aren't giving up. Every contender wants to attract the entrepreneurs at the core of the nation's seemingly unstoppable economy.

So far, front-runners Gore and Bush seem to have the edge. The Vice-President, whose interest in tech issues dates back two decades, has locked up many of Silicon Valley's biggest names. "He's the chief geek, the commander-in-geek," says venture capitalist L. John Doerr, who has often hosted the veep on his Valley visits. Adds Net-scape Communications founder Marc Andreesen: "Gore understands this stuff a lot better than anyone."

But from his perch at the Austin statehouse, a stone's throw from the city's technology corridor, Bush also has won high-tech fans. They include hometown hero Micha-el S. Dell. The billionaire founder of the eponymous computer company has not been known as a big giver in the past, but changed his mind for Bush. Netscape's former CEO James Barksdale pitched in because he says he likes Bush's policies on education and immigration. And he's not wild about Gore. "It irritates me that Gore is getting all this credit for the Internet," he says. "Meanwhile, he opposed our efforts to get approvals for encryption exports." With the help of big names like these, Bush has managed to pocket more than $6 million for his Presidential exploratory committee without holding a single fund-raiser.

While mainstream candidates in both parties seem to be lining up loads of corporate backers, business leaders don't seem very interested in the social conservatives. The top GOP White House wannabes on the right--publisher Steve Forbes, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, and conservative activist Gary L. Bauer--have scant backing from the boardroom set. All three claim the lack of support as a badge of honor. "We haven't gotten Bill Gates' check yet," quips Buchanan campaign treasurer Scott Mackenzie. "You don't see us having million-dollar fund-raisers at the Waldorf-Astoria. We've got the working class people." The only right-winger who has managed to enlist the support of some corporate bigwigs is former Vice-President Dan Quayle.

With so much competition for the campaign dollar, what's a conflicted exec to do? For many, the answer is to write checks to multiple candidates. Philip Anschutz, founder of Qwest Communications International Inc. and owner of hockey's Los Angeles Kings, is raising money for ex-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole but has donated to McCain, too. Such double-dipping is not uncommon. "We're finding a number of individuals who are writing checks to both Elizabeth and George (Bush)," says Dole finance director Philip S. Smith. Of course, that makes sense if the speculation is correct that she will be his Vice-Presidential running mate. And then again, as all business leaders know, it's wise to diversify.

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