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OUTSIDE INFLUENCES

Playing The Field

Donations from lobbyists and their firms to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona have risen this year as he has all but wrapped up the Republican nomination, but the numbers might not support charges that the veteran anti-K Street crusader is in bed with his longtime adversaries in the Washington money game.

In recent months, McCain has been portrayed as captive to K Street, with articles focused on the key role played in his campaign by uberlobbyist Charles Black and pieces in major newspapers linking McCain to a female lobbyist. According to Public Citizen, McCain has 66 lobbyist "bundlers" assembling cadres of moneyed pals to contribute.

 

The latest figures for lobbyists' contributions, compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics from disclosure reports that were due April 20, do show McCain reaping a minor windfall since his campaign's rise from near bankruptcy last summer to his position as a top contender early this year and presumptive nominee following the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. In the first three months of the year, McCain increased his total haul from lobbying firms by more than 40 percent, to more than $613,000.

But the numbers might tell as much about the lobbyists themselves as they do about McCain. K Street, like many others, likes a winner and abhors a loser and may be giving only grudgingly to McCain. The increase in fundraising by McCain from lobbyists in the first quarter of this year is proportionally less than the growth in his contributions from all sources. In March, for example, McCain added to his overall level of contributions at approximately twice the rate as he increased his sums from K Street.

And, after nearly doubling his lobbyist take from $45,000 in January to a February total of $82,885, the amount dipped to $56,600 in March as the euphoria surrounding his virtual lock on the nomination ebbed.

 

On top of that, McCain's quarterly total of $613,000 is $235,000 shy of the reigning K Street presidential money sweepstakes champ, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

McCain led the GOP field in lobbyists' contributions at the end of January, compiling $460,000 during the campaign. His two closest rivals at that point, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, each raised about $300,000.

While critics could charge that McCain is a hypocrite for railing against K Street for years while still reaping the most on any Republican presidential candidate from lobbyists, it can also be argued that his opponents raised a remarkable sum given that they had no base in Washington. By contrast, McCain has been in town for more than two decades and would remain a powerful senator -- a once and potentially future Senate Commerce chairman -- even if he lost.

Nevertheless, McCain has declined to silence critics by emulating Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and eschewing all contributions from lobbyists. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers argues that his boss doesn't have to, asserting that the inability of K Street to influence McCain has been proven by his time in the trenches on behalf of such initiatives as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which Congress passed in 2002 after years of battles.

 

Rogers says that, by comparison, Obama's pledge is little more than a "gimmick."

And Rogers disputes Public Citizens' tally of 66 K Street bundlers for McCain, saying the total is inflated. A list provided by the campaign of the most successful bundlers -- some 100 individuals who have raised at least $100,000 for McCain, includes 17 people who have been registered to lobby the federal government in 2007 or 2008, according to a CongressDaily analysis.

Would lobbyists back someone just because he or she might win? It wouldn't be too shocking.

But what is surprising, even by Washington standards, is how quickly K Street gave an icy shoulder to Clinton earlier this year as her candidacy appeared on the verge of collapse. Clinton's chances began to look bleak after Obama pieced together a string of primary wins in February, and her once-robust take from the lobbying community dove off a cliff in March.

By the end of last year, Clinton had raised $761,000 from lobbyists, more than double anyone but McCain - and about $330,000 more than him. In January, she took in $41,000. But last month, she raised only $11,650, far outstripping the pace of her overall decline in fundraising.

Even Obama, who says he takes no money from federal lobbyists, raised double Clinton's amount in March. That's because the Center for Responsive Politics counts as "lobbyists" employees of lobbying firms who do not lobby; non-federal lobbyists, and spouses of lobbyists who have no independent source of income but have decided to dip into the family kitty and contribute to Obama.

Under CRP's definition, Obama has raised a grand total of $142,000 from lobbyists or their firms.

This article appears in the May 3, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.

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