Execs On The Sidelines

With no clear front-runner, few bosses are betting on GOP hopefuls

Four years ago, Steven A. Burdwas an early and enthusiastic backer of George W. Bush. The Safeway Inc. (SWY ) CEO donated the maximum allowable by law to the President the month after Bush announced he was running for reelection and gained the Ranger moniker by raising at least $200,000 for him. But this year, as 18 candidates vie for support in the earliest Presidential free-for-all in American history, Burd has kept his checkbook closed.

Burd, who declined to comment, is not the only one. Despite the entreaties of business-friendly candidates on both sides of the political aisle, two-thirds of Bush's top fund-raisers have remained on the sidelines in the 08 Presidential race. Of the 964 supporters who gained the title Pioneer by raising at least $100,000 or Ranger by coming up with twice that, just 295 have given to any of the would-be Presidents. Only two candidates, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Arizona Senator John McCain, can claim the financial support of even 10% of Bush's high rollers. The President's former backers are now splintered among 16 different White House hopefuls, and 25 of them have given to Democratic candidates, including New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson

Political professionals and analysts blame the slow start on a Republican field that lacks the sizzle of past election cycles and a widespread perception in business circles that Democrats are likely to reclaim the White House in 2008. "They're not stupid investors," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "If they're going to give big bucks, they want a little certainty that the guy is going somewhere."

More than half of the delegates to the national conventions will be chosen by Feb. 5. Yet with no front-runner or favorite of the business Establishment--like Bush in 1999--pragmatic executives are holding back. "There's no clear choice for the nomination, and a lot of people haven't made up their minds," says former Ranger Charles R. Black Jr., CEO of lobbying and consulting firm BKSH & Associates.

Indeed, many executives are not going anywhere at all. Take E. Stanley O'Neal, CEO of Merrill Lynch & Co. (MER ) O'Neal, a registered Democrat, was named a Bush Ranger in 2004 after co-hosting a Wall Street fund-raising dinner for the President. This year, O'Neal has invited every major candidate from both parties to meet with Merrill Lynch employees. But he's not taking sides--at least not yet, a spokeswoman says.

Some of the business leaders are donating on the basis of friendships. Among them: George David, United Technologies' (UTX ) CEO, who gave to Democratic Senator Christopher J. Dodd because of "their long-term relationship [and] the senator's business-friendly policies," says company spokesman James DeFrank.

But relatively few of the candidates have extensive networks in the CEO world. And no Republican "naturally inherits a Presidential-level political operation," says former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. "There's not anyone tantamount to Hillary Clinton on our side."

By Richard S. Dunham

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