Conventions Benefit Rookie Candidates

The Democratic convention offers rookie candidates like Daniel Mongiardo (search) a terrific chance to woo major donors and fund-raisers, and the Kentucky U.S. Senate hopeful isn't shy about asking for their help.

In four days in Boston, the surgeon and state senator worked prominent Democrats from morning past midnight, in one-on-one chats and as one candidate in a parade of political newcomers giving reception speeches they hope will elevate their fund raising from a state to a national level.

"I believe this race is winnable, with your help," Mongiardo tells top party fund-raisers and donors at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee breakfast. "The only variable is money, and if you can help us with that, I promise you, I will be a Democratic doctor that will help solve some of these problems."

Far from being put out by all the schmoozing, the party's donors and volunteer fund-raisers expect and even welcome it.

"This puts a face with a name, it gives you a little feel for their personal story," said Stephen Leeds, an Atlanta attorney who estimates he raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates each election season.

Leeds started organizing a Georgia fund-raising event for Florida Senate candidate Betty Castor (search) even before he met her at the DSCC convention breakfast, where she worked the room wearing an "I am Betty Castor" campaign button. He felt her speech backed up his conclusion that she has the best chance among Democrats to win retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham's seat, and he intercepted her afterward to introduce himself.

Even among prolific money raisers, decisions on which candidates to help aren't made lightly. Fund-raisers do not want to tap their donor lists for candidates who do not need the help or do not have a chance, Leeds said.

Senators and House members are among the fund-raisers that political newcomers hope to recruit.

At the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles four years ago, then-Rep. Bill Nelson was trying to convince major donors he could win an open Florida Senate seat. They had two questions, Nelson said.

"They're looking for how you're standing in the polls, and how much money you have in the bank," he said. "They can't get into the inside of your campaign organization, so they don't know that, but what is it on the outside that looks like you have a good chance to win."

With those points in mind, House hopeful Mongiardo offers a finely tuned sales pitch while working the crowd of potential donors and fund-raisers this week in Boston.

His poll numbers against incumbent Republican Jim Bunning are rising, his fund raising is respectable and, as a surgeon, he has credibility countering the health-care positions of the GOP's top physician-turned-politician, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Party fund-raising committees like the DSCC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and interest groups such as EMILY's List, which raises campaign money for Democratic women who support abortion rights, are holding events throughout the week to give candidates a chance to answer those questions.

New York Rep. Nita Lowey, who headed the DCCC for the 2002 election, was helping shepherd freshman South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth around the convention.

"She's working terribly hard, just talking to everyone: political people, donors, just walking around the convention. She's a dynamo," Lowey said.

Lowey financed her debut House campaign in 1988 with New York state donors, but said that with campaign costs rising, national fund-raising efforts have become a must — even for many small-state candidates.

Despite the crush for campaign cash, few contributions change hands at the presidential nominating convention, said New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"It just feels out of place," Corzine said.

The meet-and-greets with donors, however, feel just fine. How many of those are on the calendar?

"Too many to count," Corzine said.