Bush base yet to rush to donate to McCain

Funding woes tied to candidate's stances, GOP standing in polls

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / July 1, 2008

President Bush has headlined a fund-raising event to help John McCain finance his campaign to succeed him, but most of the big-money backers who helped reelect Bush in 2004 haven't pulled out their checkbooks for McCain - or asked their friends to chip in either.

Of the 548 leaders of Bush's vaunted money-raising machine, about 43 percent have contributed to McCain, a Globe review of finance reports covering the period through May 31 shows. Even fewer of them solicited and bundled donations from others for McCain, as they did for Bush four years ago.

About 25 percent of the elite Bush money team gave to another Republican or, in several cases, to a Democrat, but not to McCain. Nearly a third remained on the sidelines, not contributing to any presidential candidate.

McCain's struggle to mobilize the Bush fund-raisers is in part a sign of the disaffection among some GOP stalwarts for McCain, who positions himself as a party rebel on some issues. But it's also a sign of the obstacles that any Republican nominee would face in exciting elite GOP donors at a time of discouraging poll numbers driven by economic turmoil and frustration over the Iraq war.

The McCain campaign is trying to make a virtue out of its modest success in recruiting the Bush fund-raisers. In response to the Globe's analysis, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said: "It appears you've proved that John McCain isn't Bush's third term after all," referring to a characterization the Obama campaign has made and McCain has rejected.

Bush's major fund-raisers were dubbed Rangers if they raised more than $200,000 in 2004, or Pioneers if they brought in more than $100,000.

In heavily Democratic Massachusetts, some Bush fund-raisers remain loyal to one of McCain's chief GOP rivals, Mitt Romney, the favorite son and former governor who suspended his candidacy in February.

"I would probably support John McCain if he chooses Mitt Romney as his running mate; other than that, I will not support John McCain," said venture capital fund manager and Staples founder Thomas G. Stemberg, a Bush pioneer who raised large amounts for Romney but also contributed the individual maximum, $2,300, to Senator Barack Obama in March 2007.

Concessions magnate Joseph J. O'Donnell of the Boston Culinary Group was a Bush Ranger who raised substantial sums in this race for his fellow Belmont resident, Romney. A registered independent who often contributes to Democrats, O'Donnell donated $1,000 to McCain in late March, after Romney dropped out, and said he will support McCain over the less experienced Obama, but has not raised funds on McCain's behalf. Like Stemberg, O'Donnell said he hopes McCain "is smart enough to choose Mitt" as his running mate.

Bush Pioneer Kenneth J. Kies, managing director of a Washington-based tax consulting and lobbying firm, was a late giver to McCain, donating the maximum in May. Kies said his contribution was unsolicited after he sat out the nominating contest, which he termed "a scrum."

Kies, a top-tier lobbyist, would normally be considered a prime target for a GOP presidential candidate looking for money. In the past 16 years, he has donated more than $400,000 to federal candidates and causes, nearly all of them Republican, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

"Those lists of Rangers and Pioneers were all public, so you'd think someone would've asked me, but nobody did," Kies said. "I find that kind of amazing."

The McCain campaign has often said that McCain, because of his background and positions on some issues, draws supports from different constituencies than Bush did. Linking the two through their fund-raisers is a bogus analogy, the campaign says.

Analysts, however, ascribe McCain's fund-raising struggles to a combination of factors, primarily the challenging political environment in which Republicans find themselves, with polls showing that voters overwhelmingly think the country is heading in the wrong direction under Bush.

"Part of the trend is the fact that big money typically is smart money, and it's often about seeking access in the next administration," said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor of government and independent analyst on campaign finance. "Given the current environment, it doesn't look like a good year for Republicans and therefore you don't see the energy on the Republican side in terms of fund-raising."

There are personal as well as ideological or political reasons for why many Bush fund-raisers are not supporting McCain, who over the years has bucked party orthodoxy on key issues like campaign finance reform and immigration.

"To presume that everyone who gave to the president was an ideological donor or a personal-relationship donor is obviously not true," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster based outside Washington, D.C. "A number gave because he was the president and he was the incumbent in 2004," he said. Since then, Republicans have lost control of both chambers of Congress in 2006, and the prospects for the GOP this fall are bleak, causing a drag on McCain's fund-raising, Fabrizio said.

"If you're an access giver, you're thinking twice about going out on a limb for McCain now because Obama's leading in the polls," Fabrizio said.

McCain's campaign, which has pledged to take $84.1 million in public financing for the general election campaign, had its best fund-raising month in May, pulling in $21.5 million, including $4.3 million from joint events with the Republican Party.

McCain's strategy depends on a steady fund-raising pace augmented by support from the Republican National Committee, which now has an advantage of almost $50 million over the Democratic National Committee.

The RNC hopes to raise about $120 million to help McCain and offset the money advantage of Obama, who reversed himself and declared he will not accept public funding and the spending limits that come with it. Obama raised $287 million through the end of May, to McCain's $120 million.

Some Bush "bundlers" have entered the fray, gathering contributions from other Republicans up to the $2,300 individual donation limit, but others remain noncombatants.

Several Bush Rangers who were prominent corporate executives have lost their jobs since 2004 and are no longer politically active; and some captains of commerce may balk at McCain's opposition to government subsidies, or what he calls "corporate welfare."

For instance, absent from the contributor list through last month was Bush Ranger and sugar mogul Jose "Pepe" Fanjul of Florida Crystals Corp., a domestic sugar producer that benefits from subsidies, such as those opposed by McCain in this year's farm bill.

Fanjul has donated about $210,000 to federal candidates, nearly all Republicans, since 1993, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. An aide in Fanjul's office said he was traveling "and won't be responding" to a Globe request for comment.

Other Bush fund-raisers are becoming involved to varying degrees.

"I am not sitting it out," Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who now operates a consulting business, wrote in an e-mail. "I will be on the host committee for a McCain event in Atlanta in August and will contribute and raise," wrote Reed, a Bush Ranger who held a senior position in the 2004 reelection campaign.

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