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Hillary’s money politics

Is Hillary Clinton on the way to becoming the leading female empire-builder in the history of American elections? By Howard Fineman.

If you are a reporter, getting into a Hillary Clinton fund-raiser in L.A. — or almost anywhere else, for that matter — is no easy trick. I managed to do it few years ago in Bel Air, Calif., when a friend took me along as her personal guest to a carefully guarded cocktail party at the home of movie executive Alan Horn. There were three layers you had to pass through, from the usual ticket-takers to some scowling security guys. I figured that, in the days not long after 9/11, the junior senator from New York wanted to keep her toughly worded anti-Bush rhetoric (the kind that excites Democratic hearts and opens their wallets) safely behind the closed, hand-rubbed doors.

Three years later, the veil is slowly beginning to drop. The political risk for banging away at George W. Bush is gone. And the senator's strategy for locking up the Democratic presidential nomination certainly is no secret: Raise so much money, and build such a state-of-the-art machine, that competitors will fold their tents before the 2008 battle begins. It's an ironic but exact copy of what Bush did in 2000.

On this International Women's Day, Clinton was at the National Press Club encouraging women to become entrepreneurs. It was an appropriate topic, considering that she is on the way to becoming the leading female empire-builder in the history of American elections.

With her husband's help (acting in the same role former President George H.W. Bush played for his son), Hillary is aiming for a war chest of at least $100 million by the late fall of 2007. At the same time, her longtime political liege, Harold Ickes, has founded a voter data-mining firm that may well have her as its main client. If she gets the nomination, expect her to try to do in the general election what Bush did in 2000 and 2004: give up federal funding to gain the freedom to spend whatever she can raise.

And she is following Bush in another way: Not only is she asking big donors to support her — she is, at least implicitly, asking them NOT to give to anyone else.

Under federal law, contributors can give chunks of money to several contenders. In 2000, the Bush family made sure that the message went out: if you are a friend of ours, we want you to give ONLY to our boy. Sure, Dan Quayle had been Bush One's veep, but don't give him any money! Quayle was no political colossus, but the Bush crowd was taking no chances. The words went out: Stay away.

Bill Clinton is better at cajoling than threatening — and he is a beloved figure among the donors Hillary is tapping to be cogs in her fund-raising machine. He doesn't even have to show up for the events (and he doesn't attend that many) for the Clintonian lure to be there just the same. "I think many of us consider ourselves members of the Clinton tribe," said one longtime donor, who asked not to be identified because he is still nominally playing the field.

Far from being completely secretive, Hillary now has an interest in leaking — on her own terms, of course — the names of big shots who show up at her events and who have a track record of supporting other possible contenders in 2008. One who is in that category is Alan Solomont, the savvy Boston businessman who was Sen. John Kerry's finance chair in 2004 and who remains close to the senator, to Hillary — and to just about everyone else in the party.

"It's accurate that I was there," he told me. "And all I can say is that I will do in 2008 what I have done for many years now: try to help the Democrats win the White House."

But there's a risk to the obsessive money focus: It can blind you to the politics of an issue, and it can create conflicts — or at least the appearance of conflict — between candidate and spouse.

A good example is the Dubai Ports deal. On the very day Hillary was denouncing it, Bill Clinton was singing the praises of the "Dubai guys" at the National Governors Association meeting here. He didn't tell us that he had fielded calls from the U.A.E. on how to handle the matter — let alone that he had collected, according to published reports, $600,000 in speaking fees from them since he left the White House.

Luckily for Hillary, foreign citizens, including "Dubai guys," aren't allowed to contribute to American political campaigns. If the rules had allowed it, I'm sure they would have been asked — and Hillary would have had even more explaining to do.