WASHINGTON -- Despite their calls to reduce the influence of big money in politics, presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain are both relying on affluent patrons to fund the first billion-dollar campaign in history.
Obama is touting the multitudes of small contributors who have given him less than $200, but well-heeled donors who gave $1,000 or more account for one-third of his haul nationally, and at least 20 percent of his $5.2 million take so far in Minnesota.
McCain is depending even more on big-buck donors, with $1,000-plus contributors making up about three-fourths of the $1.2 million he raised in Minnesota through June.
Presidential fundraising in Minnesota, which ranks 25th among the states in contributions, also is showing how a small cadre of influential "bundlers" on both sides are mining the same high-bracket ZIP codes for the largest hauls of their campaigns.
Tops in the state in overall presidential giving is the 55391 ZIP code centered on Wayzata, home to Carlson family scion Curtis Nelson.
Nelson is a prominent McCain donor. Wayzata is also the home of Dayton family patriarch Bruce Dayton, who has contributed to McCain and Obama. The area is No. 1 for McCain and No. 2 for Obama. The 55403 ZIP code, in and near downtown Minneapolis, is Obama's best and among McCain's strongest.
Steve Weissman, of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, said the Obama campaign can justifiably take credit for an unprecedented volume of small donations. But the big story of the 2008 election -- in Minnesota and across the country -- is the growing influence of special campaign rainmakers, he says.
"There are really two trends going on here," Weissman said. "More small donations and more concentrated gathering of large ones by a small number of wealthy and increasingly powerful bundlers."
New enthusiasm, new donors
Among the most productive bundlers in Minnesota is Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He is credited with helping McCain raise more than $500,000, or nearly half the amount the campaign reported from Minnesota in the first half of the year.
(The McCain campaign in Minnesota declined to provide updated fundraising figures covering the past six weeks.)
Three other Minnesota bundlers listed by the McCain campaign are former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, Freedom Club executive director Marjorie Dean, and US West executive Janice Unstad. All three are listed as having raised between $50,000 and $100,000.
Minnesota Democrats have answered with a small group of veteran DFL financiers, including Minneapolis power couple Sylvia and Sam Kaplan, state Sen. Dick Cohen, and real estate consultant Lou Frillman and his wife, Carol.
All five are members of Obama's 125-member national finance team and have raised an estimated $750,000 between them. That's nearly three-quarters of the money Obama has raised from large, $1,000-plus contributors in Minnesota.
Sam Kaplan, a prominent financial backer of the late Paul Wellstone, said the group's success in Minnesota has helped energize the Obama campaign. "There's an emotional involvement that I've never seen in any campaign I've been involved with," he said.
If the reliance on big donations is not new, Kaplan said, the breadth of people who are making them is. "The list of contributors includes people who have never contributed before, or never contributed at so high a level," he said. "That's the critical difference."
The new donors include traditionally Republican backers such as Chris Pohlad, who has ponied up his own money and raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for the Obama campaign. The grandson of Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, Chris Pohlad has until this election given exclusively to Republican candidates, including President Bush, Sen. Norm Coleman, and retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad.
Pushed to the max
Campaign finance laws prohibit individuals from contributing more than $4,600 to a presidential candidate. But wealthy givers and high-profile politicians can use their own fundraising networks, and all signs suggest that they are being pushed to the max.
"I've come across names, people I've solicited who have contributed significant dollars, who I don't even know, who I haven't ever met," said Cohen, one of the first state legislators in the nation to sign on to the Obama campaign.
Pawlenty, as a national co-chairman of the McCain campaign, said much of the cash that he has raised has come from a few events. One in June included Boschwitz, broadcasting magnate Stanley Hubbard, and philanthropist Wheelock Whitney. Contributors who raised more than $50,000 could get a private reception and photo with McCain.
Pawlenty said he doesn't know exactly how much he's taken in, other than it's over $500,000, putting him in the top ranks of McCain fundraisers across the country.
"If you organize one of these events, it doesn't take very long to get up to a large number, because they raise a lot of money," Pawlenty said.
Public finance in dispute
Despite Pawlenty's fundraising prowess, the McCain camp has lagged behind Obama 2-1 nationally and about 5-1 in Minnesota.
On Friday, the McCain campaign said it had raised $27 million in July, its best month to date. Then Saturday, the Obama campaign said it raised more than $51 million for the month.
McCain's camp suggests that the gap reflects Obama's decision to forgo public financing, which frees him of all spending limits. McCain, who is accepting public financing, will be limited to spending $84.1 million after his convention.
"We're very enthused about our fundraising success in Minnesota, and are proud that John McCain's kept his promise to the American people about public financing," said Tom Steward, McCain's regional spokesman. "Barack Obama did not keep that promise, and after Obama's last high-dollar fundraiser in the Twin Cities, Minnesotans know his talk about a parallel public financing system is just that -- talk."
Obama's campaign cites its outpouring of predominantly small donors as a reason to opt out of public financing for the general election. Nationwide, the campaign announced last week that it has received money from more than 2 million people, the bulk of them giving in small denominations.
In Minnesota, Obama has raised an estimated $3.2 million from contributions of less than $200, according to his campaign. Much of that success is attributed to Obama's Internet strategy that makes it easy for ordinary supporters to give.
"If you look at his total fundraising, tens of thousands of people who are giving small amounts make up most of the money Obama has raised in Minnesota," said Jeff Blodgett, Obama's state director.
But the total raised in small contributions, collected during that past 19 months, was nearly matched in one Minneapolis fundraiser this month that raised over $2.2 million. More than 350 people paid $1,000 to hear Obama speak, and about 50 paid $28,500 each to dine with the candidate. (Dollars in excess of the individual contribution limit went to the Democratic National Committee).
So far, each campaign lists more than 500 supporters across the country who have raised at least $50,000, the same people who organize and drive the lavish fundraisers.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753