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Obama looks to tap Clinton’s top fund-raisers

As Sen. Barack Obama edges closer to the Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign is gearing up to recruit many of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s top fundraisers.
/ Source: The New York Times

As Senator claims the Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign is gearing up to recruit many of Senator ’s top fund-raisers, a move that could provide him with a huge infusion of cash if the two camps can get past the rancor of the primary season.

Several of Mr. Obama’s finance officials say that if Mrs. Clinton drops out of the race, they will invite her top fund-raisers to join his national finance committee at a meeting in Chicago on June 19. They estimate that the well-connected Clinton team could raise $50 million to $75 million for Mr. Obama and even more for the , adding to the already record-shattering amounts he is receiving from small donors over the Internet.

So far, the contact between the two sides has been limited to informal talks among fund-raisers in major cities, and Mr. Obama’s advisers stressed that they would not take any steps to court Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raisers as long as she remained in the race. But top fund-raisers in both camps say they have always expected to coalesce behind the nominee. And Mr. Obama’s advisers say that strong support from the Clinton fund-raising machine could be important to their campaign if, as is widely expected, he opts out of the public financing system in the general election against Senator , the presumptive Republican nominee.

Mr. Obama has already raised three times as much money as Mr. McCain. And the combination of his Internet appeals and the Clinton donors could lift Mr. Obama’s fund-raising total to an eye-popping $400 million to $500 million, practically ensuring that the Democrats would outspend the Republicans in the Nov. 4 election and be in position to mount the party’s largest advertising and get-out-the-vote drives ever.

Still, there are sharp differences in how the Obama and the Clinton fund-raising teams have operated, and people on both sides say it could be harder than in past Democratic campaigns for them to pull together. And some campaign-finance experts caution that an influx of high-rolling donors from the Clinton camp could carry some political risks for Mr. Obama, particularly if some of the contributions seemed at odds with his promise to reduce the role of special interests in politics.

Hassan Nemazee, a national finance chairman for the Clinton campaign, said that if Mr. Obama wins the nomination, most of Mrs. Clinton’s top 300 to 400 fund-raisers would support him. But Mr. Nemazee said that how much money they could bring in would depend on how deeply the Obama campaign integrated the two operations, what kind of fund-raising events were held and whether Mrs. Clinton ended up on the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate.

"It would be important how much Senator Obama and his top advisers in Chicago reached out, and how welcome our people felt," Mr. Nemazee said.

Campaign-finance experts said that enlisting the Clinton donor network could blur Mr. Obama’s image as a different kind of politician — and alienate some of his core supporters — if he began taking large sums from corporate executives in industries like financial services and energy that he has criticized on the campaign trail.

"His victories were because of his ability to use the Internet to get cadres of people to give small donations and to volunteer for him," said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington. "If he were to suddenly look like Hillary Clinton in the early months, where he would go only after high-dollar donors, it could turn off people ringing doorbells for him."

Anthony J. Corrado Jr., a professor of government at and a campaign-finance expert, added that Mr. Obama might not need to take that risk, given the power of his Internet fund-raising juggernaut.

Records show that more than 1.5 million people have donated to Mr. Obama’s primary campaign, and he has raised $121 million, or 47 percent of his total of $256 million in donations, from individuals in amounts of $200 or less.

"That’s what’s been driving his fund-raising," Mr. Corrado said, "and it has been scaled up to the point that if all the existing Obama donors give $100, and about a third of the Clinton donors do the same, he can have a couple hundred million dollars more."

Mr. Obama’s campaign officials declined to talk publicly about plans to reach out to the Clinton fund-raisers, saying that they did not want to seem disrespectful to Mrs. Clinton.

Ben LaBolt, an Obama spokesman, said in a statement that the campaign was "confident that after a nominee is selected, the Democratic Party will unite at every level." Mr. LaBolt also said the campaign would continue to emphasize grass-roots donations and refuse contributions from Washington lobbyists.

But one top Obama fund-raiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the campaign wants to bring the Clinton finance team on board to help ensure that it would have enough money to counter any attacks from independent Republican groups, like the Vietnam Swift-boat veterans that damaged Senator ’s presidential campaign in 2004.

"I think the Swift-boating is what everybody fears, that they’ll be running countless TV loops of Rev. Wright," the fund-raiser said, referring to Mr. Obama’s controversial former pastor,

Others said that encouraging the Clinton fund-raisers to get behind Mr. Obama would also be a boon for the , which has lagged far behind its Republican counterpart in raising money that can be used to support the presidential nominee and Democratic candidates at other levels.

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have both promised to raise money for the national committee, which can accept contributions of up to $28,500 from each donor and hopes to raise several hundred million dollars.

Mr. Obama also has had a team of more than 360 fund-raisers who have each brought in at least $50,000, and several dozen of them are raising at least $200,000.

Some of those fund-raisers said they had already tapped most of the people they could for the maximum individual donation of $2,300 for the primaries, though Mr. Obama’s emergence as the nominee would undoubtedly stir up new donors. Under federal law, each donor could also give an additional $2,300 for the general election.

But any Clinton fund-raisers who join the Obama team could still seek the full $4,600 for him from Mrs. Clinton’s backers, providing perhaps an even larger infusion of money from traditional donors.

Campaign-finance records show that through April, $53 million, or nearly one-third, of the $169 million that Mrs. Clinton had raised for the primary came from people giving $2,300.

She also raised — and must return if Mr. Obama wins the nomination — more than $23 million in donations for the general election. But fund-raisers on both sides said it would be relatively easy for her fund-raisers to encourage many of the wealthy donors to redirect that money to Mr. Obama’s campaign.

A bigger question, they said, is whether Mr. Obama’s advisers will be willing to go far enough in bridging the cultural divide between the campaigns to provide enough motivation for the Clinton fund-raisers to work hard.

People on both sides said Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising operation had been more highly structured, and some Clinton fund-raisers are worried about whether they would get enough credit and support within the Obama campaign.

Mr. Obama’s team is also planning to have Mr. Obama speak in June and July at a series of large fund-raising events, each designed to raise $3 million to $5 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The Clinton fund-raisers, by contrast, have preferred more intimate events, where their big donors could spend with Mrs. Clinton or her husband, former President .

So far, the talk in the Obama camp has focused mainly on inviting top Clinton fund-raisers to the meeting in Chicago on June 19, where any who were willing to raise $250,000 for Mr. Obama could join his national finance committee.

But Mr. Nemazee, a Clinton finance chairman, said he would like to see the two fund-raising operations merged more substantially. In past presidential races, this has typically been done by providing national and regional leadership positions to fund-raisers for candidates who did not win the party’s nomination.

"When people are raising money, they want to know that, at the end of the day, someone knows what you did, that there is an institutional memory for all this," Mr. Nemazee said.

Some of the Clinton fund-raisers said that depending on how these issues were resolved, they could raise at least $50 million for Mr. Obama and a similar amount for the national committee. Mr. Nemazee estimated that the total for both the Obama campaign and the D.N.C. could rise to $200 million if Mrs. Clinton were the vice-presidential nominee.

This article, , first appeared in .