SAN FRANCISCO – When John Kerry (search) kicks off his multistate fund-raising tour in California next week, stars including Ben Affleck (search) and Leonardo DiCaprio (search) will add a celebrity buzz to a crowd already passionately committed to ousting President Bush in November.
Home to some of the Democratic Party's deepest pockets, California has always been a mother lode for candidates pursuing national office. This time, though, the anybody-but-Bush intensity among Democrats has motivated activists to seek money like never before.
"I've never seen a time when Democrats and many independents are more galvanized and interested in helping," said state Treasurer Phil Angelides (search), who has raised more than $50,000 for Kerry. "I believe there is greater intensity and widespread willingness to give than in any previous election I can remember."
First up for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is a luncheon Monday in Sacramento hosted by Angelides, then a San Francisco reception organized by the area's top high-tech moguls.
On Tuesday, Kerry lunches with donors in San Diego before hitting a gala at the Los Angeles home of billionaire supermarket mogul Ron Burkle (search), with Affleck, DiCaprio and Barbra Streisand (search). Singer James Taylor (search) will perform.
Kerry is familiar to many Democratic donors here, having spent years cultivating contacts in Hollywood and the high-tech community, the state's two main treasure troves of campaign cash. He has already raised more money in California, $5 million, than from any other state, according to recent financial disclosures.
But Bush has raised more than $13.3 million in the state, for a $170 million war chest that even Kerry's staunchest supporters say he is unlikely to come close to matching. Kerry has set a goal of raising $105 million before the Democratic National Convention (search) in late July.
To be sure, not all of California's Democratic donors have been Kerry supporters. Many found the four-term Massachusetts senator a bit stuffy, and his tortured justification for his vote authorizing the U.S.-led war in Iraq persuaded many activists to support former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search).
One is Steve Kirsch (search), a Silicon Valley multimillionaire who is one of the Democratic Party's biggest donors. Originally a Dean supporter, Kirsch has switched to Kerry — but with reservations.
"I will do anything I can to defeat President Bush — that's easy," Kirsch said, "and John Kerry is very much aligned with the types of things I'd like to see done. If I have any complaint, it's that he's not aggressive enough."
But with the state's vast resources come limitations. Because of a $2,000 federal limit on individual contributions, Kerry's fund-raisers must cast their nets wide by "bundling" checks from multiple supporters.
"I'm on the phone all morning, and another three hours in the afternoon," said Susie Tompkins Buell, founder of the Esprit clothing company who, like Angelides, has raised more than $50,000 for Kerry. "I've been calling everyone I know."
Many of California's wealthiest Democrats can give far more to Kerry than the $2,000 allowed by law, including Kirsch and entertainment moguls Haim Saban (search) and Steven Bing (search). Together, the three gave $20.2 million to Democratic Party committees in 2002, mostly as "soft money," which the political parties are now barred from accepting.
As a result, many wealthy donors have "maxed out" to Kerry. But they can make larger donations to the Democratic National Committee, which can accept $25,000 per individual, or one of several groups created to accept soft money — corporate, union and unlimited donations. These groups include America Coming Together, the Media Fund and MoveOn.org, which oppose Bush. Bing already has contributed nearly $3 million to these groups.
While the groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts, they are legally prohibited from coordinating with Kerry's campaign. That leaves his fund-raisers to find ways to hint that donors can and should contribute to both efforts.
"This is going to be a long battle ahead, and it's important to give John Kerry the ammunition and the resources he needs. Beyond that, there are a lot of ways people can help," Angelides said.
But Margery Tabankin, a longtime Democratic activist who advises Streisand on her political donations, said that while it is natural for the same group of high-profile Hollywood Democrats to be targeted by both Kerry and these independent organizations, she and other fund-raisers take pains to keep the discussions separate.
She said everyone understands these groups can help "neutralize Bush's money, but I've never made the linkage on the same phone call when I'm raising money for Kerry."
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the grass-roots donors who lined up in droves for Dean, who raised $5.8 million in California before dropping from the race. Most of it came from small donors over the Internet.
"Democrats who want to be competitive have to have grass-roots financial support — the only way to challenge Bush is to get people to contribute what they can," said Jude Barry, Dean's California campaign director. "I think the Kerry campaign gets it, and if they don't get it, they don't get it at their own peril."