WASHINGTON – The White House isn't the only prestigious address on Sen. Christopher Dodd's mind as he nears a decision on whether he'll plunge into a crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders.
Wall Street also looms large. The Connecticut senator will become chairman of the Senate Banking Committee in Congress, giving him oversight of the nation's banking, financial services and insurance industries. The post will create new fundraising opportunities — a potential boost for a longshot prospect like Dodd who must prove he can raise the tens of million of dollars needed to stay competitive in the 2008 campaign.
"Any time you are chairman of a committee that oversees, arguably, the wealthiest sector of society, that's a significant opportunity to raise some real dough," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist from several presidential campaigns. "But it's potentially a double-edged sword."
The senator has accepted millions of dollars in contributions from Wall Street interests during his 25 years in the Senate, but his new chairmanship, plus his White House ambitions, have upped the ante.
"It's a tightrope walk when you're the chairman of a committee that regulates the industry that gives the most money to politics, in general," said Massie Ritsch, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "It has to be tempting to take a lot of money from this industry, because they want to give it so much."
A surge of Wall Street money could initially boost Dodd's prospects. But it could also undercut his efforts to cast himself as a champion of average working Americans.
"One of the first places people look is where your campaign cash comes from, and if it came from an industry that you regulate, you're going to have to answer questions about potential conflicts of interest and being too cozy with Big Business," said Ritsch.
A campaign spokeswoman for Dodd, whose state is home to big insurance companies, said he would be the same independent voice on the banking panel he's always been. The senator will follow the letter of the law on fundraising, and conduct himself as "a thoughtful and independent chairman who listens to all sides of an issue and enacts public policy that is in the best interest of the American people," spokeswoman Beneva Schulte said.
Dodd, 62, is prepping for a White House bid that even he acknowledges is a longshot.
Amid the Democratic pack of potential candidates dominated by heavyweights like New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, raising enough money to compete will be one of Dodd's most pressing challenges.
Dodd refused to divulge his current fundraising totals. But at the end of September, he had about $1.8 million in his Senate campaign account. His political action committee's cash balance was $167,526 in November.
Dodd's numbers are eclipsed by potential rivals Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, who each have about $14 million in campaign funds.
Candidates will need to raise $50 million by the end of the primary season, said Steve Grossman, a veteran party fundraiser and former Democratic National Committee chairman.
"There's not a whole lot of oxygen left in the room when you get beyond the two presumptive front-runners," Grossman said of Clinton and Obama.
If Dodd jumps into the race, he needs to show fundraising muscle soon, said Grossman.
"How quickly Dodd can get to $10 million is important," said Grossman. "March matters. March is about momentum ... The process unfolds so quickly. Chris Dodd has to be able to see a clear path to $10 million by June."
Beyond Wall Street, Dodd, a former national party chairman, has a national network of supporters, including many in the Jewish community, that he can build on, said Grossman.
Veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick predicted Dodd would have enough cash. "But you gotta catch on, that's really the trick for Dodd," Carrick said.
Dodd is a familiar figure in the financial world, having served on the banking panel for 25 years. He also has been a strong consumer advocate on lending issues, said Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit advocacy group. The federation, however, has disagreed with Dodd on some securities and insurance issues.
Securities and investment industry interests have given $2.18 million to Dodd since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It was the most money Dodd got from any industry. Insurance industry sources gave $1.08 million, the center's statistics showed, while commercial bank interests gave $553,719.