WASHINGTON – House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri has raised at least $15 million to help House Democrats in the fall election. Already this year he has appeared at fund-raisers in at least 21 cities.
Also raising money for fellow Democrats and contributing dollars from their own political action committees are 2000 presidential nominee Al Gore; his 2000 running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman; Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota; Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry; and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
"When you bring money in for the party you help yourself because not only are you currying favor, but you're also exposing yourself to a lot of political leaders in the various states that you're going to need in the primary season," said David Lanoue, a University of Alabama political scientist.
Early primary states such as New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina have been the major beneficiaries of the strategy. Kerry, Gephardt, Gore, Edwards, Lieberman and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean all have headlined party fund-raisers in New Hampshire in recent months.
Edwards and Gephardt have appeared at two fund-raisers each in Iowa since the first of the year. Gephardt and Lieberman have helped Democrats in South Carolina raise money at three events.
Leading Democrats also are reaching out to local Democrats in other ways.
Lieberman's Responsibility, Opportunity, Community PAC wrote a $5,000 check to the Iowa Democratic Party and gave $2,500 to New Hampshire's Manchester Democratic Committee last month.
Gephardt visited Portsmouth, N.H., during the Christmas holidays with House candidate Martha Fuller Clark, greeting shoppers and shaking hands.
Gore made his first post-election trip to New Hampshire in October for a party dinner. He spent three or four days beforehand driving around the state and inviting key activists to meet him for coffee.
"It makes a big impression on activists here in New Hampshire," state party spokesman Colin Van Ostern said of the visits. "It's a small enough state that people know who's coming and who's helping out."
New Hampshire party vice chairman Ray Buckley said the potential candidates now are bigger draws than then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton was when he first ran for president in 1992.
Clinton started visiting the state as far back as 1979 but the party's "players" did not consider him a top-drawer prospect, said Buckley, who recalls Clinton helping him raise money for his Manchester City Council race at one point.
Kerry said the help he received from Clinton in a tough Senate race against then-Republican Gov. William Weld in 1996 is one reason he is raising money for others.
"I won that race, built a nationwide base of donors, and I'll continue to use my position of strength to help other Democrats in the fights of their political lives," Kerry said.
In addition to those Democrats testing the presidential waters, California Gov. Gray Davis must be considered a potential fund-raising leader, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said. Davis has raised $42 million for his own re-election bid this fall.
"If he hits the $60 million or $70 million mark, which he could easily do, he would establish himself as somebody who as a presidential candidate could provide the loaves and fishes for the parties and candidates across the country," Sabato said.
But proven fund-raising ability alone, however, is not enough to capture a major-party presidential nomination.
Texas Sen. Phil Gramm went all-out to raise money and campaign for other Republicans before his 1996 bid for the GOP nomination. But he ended up being forced out of the race early on.
"No one gets to be nominated by only one item," said Alec Poitevint, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia who was a member of Gramm's national finance team. "You've got to connect with the people. But it is part of a winning formula. There's no doubt about it."