McCain's Gravy

Don't buy his poor-boy claims — he can raise big bucks. But will it be his undoing?

Don't cry for John McCain.

The senator would have you believe that he's too much the maverick. That his support of campaign-finance reform has cost him any small chance he ever had at becoming your next president. That the very system he wants to destroy will destroy him first, preventing him from raising the millions of dollars he needs to run for president.

After he filed papers to create a presidential-campaign exploratory committee last month, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked McCain how he'd ever be able to raise enough cash to launch a credible campaign.

"I'll just have to get 14,000 or 15,000 of my closest friends to give in thousand-dollar chunks," McCain whined.

Don't believe it. McCain can raise the cash, and if it comes from friends, they'll be friends who happen to run multimillion-dollar corporations.

The real question is, can he grab the cash while maintaining the independent, populist image he's so assiduously cultivated in the national media over the past few years?

Maybe not.

As long as he's the noble outsider, McCain can get away with anything, it seems--the Keating Five, a drug-stealing wife, nasty jokes about Chelsea Clinton--and the pundits will gurgle and coo. McCain has been anointed The One To Watch by everyone from Chris Matthews to George Will.

But there's a thorn among the bouquet of stories John McCain has received from the national media over the past year, a thistle that could branch out as the press turns from fawning to frenzied:

Campaigns and Elections, a trade publication for the political crowd, named McCain "Political Hypocrite of 1998," opining, "Despite all of his protestations about the evils and inequities of the current campaign finance system, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), co-author of the renowned McCain-Feingold campaign reform proposal, dramatically and unabashedly milks the political money system when his own [Senate] election is on the line."

And barely on the line, at that. McCain so outgunned his opponent, political novice Ed Ranger, in last November's election that the senator could have prevailed without raising a dime. It was the perfect opportunity for McCain to take a stand and stick to his purported fund-raising principles.

Instead, John McCain blew past the limits McCain-Feingold would establish, raking in $4.4 million--compared with Ranger's paltry $300,000--and winning with a mammoth 69 percent of the vote.

In contrast, co-sponsor Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold stuck to the limits, and as a result had quite the horse race. Feingold's opponent, U.S. Representative Mark Neumann, actually outraised and outspent him--and Feingold's rectitude almost lost his seat. Feingold could have raided the Democratic Party's coffers for cash, but he had sworn off soft money, per McCain-Feingold.

Despite his fund-raising bonanza, McCain did eschew soft money. That was easy, of course; no one was offering it up. But would McCain have turned up his nose at extra cash if he'd had some real competition? Hardly. Of course, Feingold isn't running for president. John McCain is.

John McCain hits the presidential racetrack with a bigger feedbag than most--more than $2 million left over from his Senate bid.

Granted, $2 million is nothing next to $20 million, which is what the pundits say a serious candidate must raise this year to prove his or her viability.

The $20 million threshold should be no problem for McCain. To understand why, you need to look at the money the senator raised for his 1998 Senate campaign, and how he raised it.

For years now, McCain has performed a fine balancing act. In the national press, he's a war hero, a populist, a maverick, an underdog. But on Capitol Hill, McCain is boss, chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, keeper of the goodies for all sorts of deep-pocketed businesses.

While national reporters spent 1998 waxing on about McCain's independent streak and honest talk, a young woman named Jennifer Shecter was holed up in an office in downtown Washington, D.C., tracking congressional votes and matching them up against campaign contributions. Shecter, a researcher at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), doesn't have a political agenda. If she did, she might have initially supported McCain, since, like him, she and her organization tout campaign-finance reform.

But McCain's name kept popping up on lists of senators who took big money from business interests. Schecter reported them in "Money in Politics Alerts" published by CRP. She noted that McCain basked in the largess of computer companies, airlines, telecommunications companies and cable television companies--all while he was introducing and/or considering legislation that directly impacted those businesses, before his Senate Commerce Committee.

For example, McCain introduced legislation that would have opened the long-distance telephone market to the Baby Bells, who in turn gave him and other members of Congress scads of cash (four of them coughed up more than $20,000 each to McCain alone); in 1997, Shecter discovered, the Baby Bells had spent at least $4.4 million in PAC, soft money and individual contributions to federal candidates. McCain had the power to influence many decisions that could impact Microsoft, which hosted a fund raiser for him. And so on.

"There is no doubt that John McCain is in an extremely good position to raise money," says Shecter. "He chairs the committee that regulates some of the most powerful and generous industries in the country."

So how did the money break down in the final analysis? Just to give you an idea of McCain's fund-raising prowess, here's a list of the companies who gave his Senate campaign big bucks, via their political action committees and/or employees:

More than $20,000: U.S. West, AT&T, BellSouth Corp., Bell Atlantic.

Between $15,000-$19,999: AMR Corp. (Alaska Air's owner), Bank One Corp., News Corp., Phelps Dodge Corp., Boeing Co., Ameritech Corp. (a Baby Bell), CSX Corp. (a railroad).

Between $10,000-$14,999: Bank of America, Federal Express Corp., Cyprus Amax Minerals Co., Hensley & Co., Union Pacific Corp., National Association of Home Builders, Ford Motor Co., Lockheed Martin, National Cable Television Association, Motorola Inc., Del Webb Corp., Allied Pilots Association, American Institute of CPAs, Burlington Northern Inc., MCI WorldCom, SBC Communications, Marshall & Ilsley Corp., Sprint Corp., Americans for Free International Trade, Arizona Public Service Co., Cellular Telecom Industry Association, Citigroup Inc., Marine Engineers Union, National Association of Underwriters, Newport News Shipbuilding, TRW Inc. and United Parcel Service.

As long as McCain chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, companies like these will give him money with the hope of currying favor. Yes, some of the companies listed above are headquartered in Arizona, but for the record, 65 percent of the money McCain raised in 1998 came from out of state.

And 26 percent of it came from, as Campaigns and Elections puts it, "those dastardly denizens of political corruption"--PACs.

Will McCain's push for campaign-finance reform sway the big-money contributors as the senator makes his presidential push? Hard question, Shecter says. But one thing she knows for sure: "They're not going to bite the hand that feeds them."

Her conclusion? "I would say John McCain right now is sitting in the catbird seat. He's got high visibility and he chairs one of the most influential committees in the Senate. . . . If John McCain sent out a fund-raising letter, there would be very few interests that would ignore it."

In any case, John McCain is nowhere in his standing with the GOP mainstream. He's registering barely a blip in the polls, lagging light-years behind Texas Governor George W. Bush.

So, in spite of the character references he's getting from opinion makers on the East Coast, McCain may well need to rely on campaign-finance reform as the issue to energize and win over voters.

Is it fair to castigate John McCain for his fund raising? Really, he's only doing what every other successful modern national leader (except for guys like H. Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, who've used lots of their own cash) has had to do to get elected.

Voters in Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts have approved "Clean Elections" initiatives for public-financing of state campaigns despite the fact that the Clean Elections crowd raised and spent big bucks.

Can McCain count on voters to understand--or believe--that he's in a similar quandary? Will he be seen as a noble pragmatist or a phony?

The people will decide.

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