Big Democratic Donors Uncommitted in Presidential Race

Despite aggressive courting, many big Democratic fund-raisers and donors from Hollywood to New York are waiting for presidential hopefuls to begin emerging from the pack before committing to a candidate.

Among reasons cited are a desire to see the nine candidates distinguish themselves and prove their campaigns viable; misgivings that the Democratic donor base might be unable to sustain so many national campaigns; and the thinking that even if candidates are campaigning this early, party activists do not have to.

"The election's two years off. We're making movies," said Andy Spahn, spokesman for DreamWorks SKG, a movie studio.

He said Democratic heavyweights Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks' founding triumvirate, have not committed to a candidate despite pursuit by at least six of the nine in the 2004 race. "We don't feel a sense of urgency," Spahn said.

In New York City and elsewhere, many donors and volunteer fund-raisers are forming informal groups and asking candidates to meet them before choosing sides, said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and chairman of the Gore-Lieberman New York campaign in 2000.

"I think it's the crowded field," said Zimmerman, who has not yet committed for 2004. "It's also important to realize donors want to feel a connection" to a candidate.

Barbra Streisand, who helped House Democrats raise $6 million in one night last fall, is doing her homework on the candidates and holding off on an endorsement for now, a spokesman said.

Solicitations are pouring in to Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Miramax movie studio, but he is focused on the Oscars.

Power Rangers creator Haim Saban, who gave millions to Democrats for last year's election, is also being courted but feels that as a DNC officer he should stay neutral, a spokeswoman said.

Some party activists committed to a candidate but changed plans when a new contender entered the race.

In donor-rich Florida, Sen. Bob Graham's decision to start a fund-raising committee is expected to shift most of the state's Democratic givers to him.

Pensacola, Fla., attorney Fred Levin said he considers himself a good friend of Graham and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and has contributed to both in the past. Levin said he had planned to help Edwards raise money for his presidential campaign, but has known Graham for decades and now feels he should help him instead.

"I'm in a very difficult situation. I had committed to Johnny, never expecting that Bob Graham was going to jump into the race," Levin said. "When things do shake out, maybe they'll be a ticket together, I hope. It would make it a lot easier for me."

In California, Democratic activists estimate that from one-third to a majority of the major donors and volunteer fund-raisers in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles are on the sidelines. Of the others, many are giving to more than one candidate, they said.

"I don't get any sense that there's a favorite here at all at the moment," said Garry South, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' senior political adviser, who is being courted by several candidates.

Some question just how many presidential campaigns Democratic donors can sustain.

Silicon Valley Democratic campaign veteran Donnie Fowler said he has heard that four or five candidates say they expect to raise around $30 million -- some people have heard more -- for their primary campaigns.

"That's $100 million to $150 million (total) compared to the $32 million to $34 million Gore spent as sitting vice president," Fowler said. "The first thing that baffles me is where is this money coming from for these many candidates?"

Added South: "I don't think the money is here, and I think you're going to have a lot of people, based on the Gore experience in 2000 ... sitting back to some degree seeing how they put their campaigns together."

Many of the big players in Chicago are undecided, said Joe Cari Jr., a Democratic national committeeman and 2000 DNC national finance chairman.

"The major donors here know there are several outstanding candidates, but nobody's really moving," Cari said.

Cari said he thinks it's too early to commit when still more people -- Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, who recently made the rounds in Chicago, and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, to name two -- might enter the race.

The first sign of the candidates' fund-raising success will come in mid-April, when the campaigns must file reports with the Federal Election Commission covering the first three months of the year.

"Money will bring money," said Mike Feldman, a Democratic consultant in Washington, D.C. "If one of these guys is actually emerging as a successful fund-raiser, the low-hanging fruit having been picked, the money will move toward the perceived front-runner."

The candidates so far are Edwards, Graham, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts, Reps. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York and former Sen. Sen. Carole Moseley Braun of Illinois.