Candidates Ride The Big Money Train

President Bush -- who raised a record $85 million toward his re-election campaign by Sept. 30 -- has never denied being a friend to big business, and has been rewarded accordingly.

But top presidential candidates, who make it a regular feature of their campaign rhetoric to slam groups seeking to influence Washington policy, have also benefited handsomely from special interests in the 2004 election cycle.

Democrats have so far taken millions from lawyers, lobbyists and corporate tycoons, all the while using their donors for target practice on the campaign trail, say some GOP analysts.

"What they’re saying and what they are doing don’t quite add up," said Republican strategist Matt Keelen. "But they’ve been getting away with it for so long, and will continue to until someone says, ‘This stinks!'"

"I wouldn’t call it hypocritical, but let’s put it this way, all candidates try to distance themselves from special interests, but they all do it," said Steven Weiss, an analyst for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks candidate contributions on its Web site

Democratic campaign officials say that taking contributions from special interests that are then the object of criticism demonstrates the candidates' ability to resist political pressure tactics.

Based on recent contributions, those with the greatest skill at separating the issues are current officeholders, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search), Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.

Edwards, a trial lawyer by profession, has made the working class his crusade in the campaign, and has often bashed the Bush administration for cuddling up to corporate insiders and interests.

"Our country is suffering because a few at the top -- in Washington and in boardrooms -- have decided those values just don't matter anymore," Edwards told a Manchester, N.H., rotary club over the summer.

But according to the Center for Responsive Politics (search), nearly all of Edwards’ top 20 donors are prominent law and lobbying firms, from whom he has raised more than $7.4 million so far this election cycle.

During that same time, Kerry raised $3.3 million from this group, Gephardt just over $2 million and Lieberman about $1.5 million.

Bush, whose total contributions are more than triple those of his closest fund-raising rival, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has raised $6.2 million so far from lobbyists and lawyers. Dean, who has raised more than $25 million to date toward his campaign, took in less than $1 million from lawyers and law firms. Contributions from lobbyists don't register among Dean's top 20 industry donors.

In another area, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, including health maintenance organizations, Democrats are quick to criticize, but they are also willing to accept money for their war chests.

"The big drug companies are gouging seniors and making health care more expensive while their top executives make millions," Kerry told seniors in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this month.

Those millionaire executives are among the contributors who helped Kerry raise more than $200,000 through mid-August from the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Lieberman's take from these groups in that same time was more than $250,000.

And Kerry, who consistently emphasizes a mistrust of big business interests, took $1.2 million from investment and securities firms and commercial banks. Lieberman earned more than $638,000 from investment and securities groups.

Rather than see this as a case of conflicting interests, Kerry spokesman Dag Vega said the senator has nothing to hide, and he welcomes greater transparency of campaign financing.

"Then you are held accountable," Vega said, suggesting that unlike Bush, Kerry does not give special treatment to his big donors back in Washington.

Lieberman spokesman Adam Kovacevich said his boss has never been "anti-business," but is critical of bad business when it counts.

"[He] is proud of the support he's received from the business community, particularly from major employers in Connecticut," said Kovacevich. "But when it comes to the positions he takes, he's always going to call them as he sees them, regardless of who is supporting him."

Meanwhile, Gephardt, a strident defender of the small farmer against corporate agribusinesses, recently has absorbed $70,000 from agribusiness sources.

Gephardt spokesman Eric Wilson echoed the refrain that his boss' ability to criticize agribusiness while taking their campaign donations is proof that Gephardt is in no one’s pocket.

"He doesn’t make apologies about criticizing people who contribute to him when he feels they are doing something he doesn’t like," Wilson said.

Of course, none of the candidates' contributions can match those of Bush, who has shocked and awed many with his ability to raise more money than any other presidential candidate in history. Some Republican strategists are estimating Bush will rake in $200 million by the time the 2004 election is all said and done.

"It’s not unusual for a president to be aggressively fund-raising, to raise as much as he can. This is what [President] Clinton did in ’96," said Weiss. "What is unusual is the amount. We haven’t seen figures like this before."

Weiss noted that Bush, who faces no primary competition, has a number of corporate titans fund-raising for him. These "Rangers" are corporate bigwigs who can raise $200,000-plus each for the Bush/Cheney '04 campaign.

Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O'Neal, a Bush Ranger, has brought in $364,000 for the re-election. The president's next four highest contributors -- all financial giants -- have raised $870,690 so far for Bush.

Despite the incredible sums, the Bush campaign said every dime is needed to fend off repeated attack ads from the Democratic candidates, who collectively are on par with the president in terms of cash collected.

"We are expecting a close race, and we are raising resources [to] pay for grassroots activities and to get the president’s message out there," said campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel.