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Wooing the Bundlers

The bundler to top all bundlers? Oprah Winfrey, who hosted a fundraiser for Barack Obama in September. (Reuters/Harpo Inc.).

The courtship of bundlers is one aspect of launching a presidential campaign that few people ever see. But in the early months of 2007, virtually all of the presidential contenders were engaging in a seemingly endless series of dinners and one-on-one meetings as they tried to gain the backing of the handful of people known for their ability to raise huge sums of political money.

With help from finance director Julianna Smoot, who is profilied in this moning's Post, Sen. Barack Obama turned out to be a master of the practice. Through much of late 2006 and in the weeks leading up to his announcment for president, he was introducing himself to captains of industry, wealthy trial lawyers, hedge fund jet-setters and Hollywood moguls, as he began building a fundraising operation that would eventually bring in more than $75 million for his campaign. (Obama finance team members meeting in Iowa over the weekend were told that number could approach $80 million by the time all the checks from the third quarter are counted.)

The key to Obama's success? A deft personal touch, according to Mark Gilbert, a Florida investment manager who had just finished helping congressional challenger Ron Klein raise $17 million for a successful bid. When Smoot called Gilbert in February to ask if he would fly to Washington to meet with Obama, he decided to give it a try. Short on time, Gilbert took an evening flight on Feb. 5, and arrived late at Obama's nondescript Capitol Hill campaign office. It was well after 9 p.m., when they finally met. The two had only about 20 minutes before Obama had to break off to another meeting.

When Obama found out Gilbert had flown in just for that meeting, Smoot recalled, he was livid. "I think that was the first phone call he made to me after I got the job. He said, 'Do not do that.'" By the time Gilbert got to his hotel room that night, his cell phone was ringing. "It was the senator," Gilbert said. "He said he didn't realize he was going to have so little time. He said he wanted to talk more," and invited Gilbert to breakfast. "There was a bond we got from that phone call. I was very impressed that someone trying to build a national team would reach out like that."

Every candidate engaged in these courtship rituals -- each with his or her own flair. Two key donors in Philadelphia, lawyers Richard Schiffrin and Mark Aronchick, described in an interview with The Post how a procession of candidates came calling on them last fall.

Aronchick said: "Sen. [Christopher] Dodd had Richard and I out to dinner. Sen. [Joseph] Biden and I took a train ride together back from Washington. [Former North Carolina] Sen. [John] Edwards had up us to lunch in New York, at the Regency, where he was staying. [Former Iowa] Gov. [Tom] Vilsack came to my office to speak with us. [New Mexico] Gov. [Bill] Richardson invited us to fly down to Miami and go out with him." Obama tried to make a run at the Philadelphia insiders, too, inviting them to meet him at the train station and ride with him to a fundraising event.

But it was Hillary Clinton whose appeals won them over. A key Clinton aide invited the two men and their wives to Washington. Clinton was supposed to see them for 20 minutes in the green room of the Washington Convention Center after a speech to women from Emily's List, an organization which supports Democratic women candidates. But the conversation lasted nearly an hour. Aronchick described how the two were then shuttled over to the campaign's headquarters, where they met "with all of the key folks. I said, 'Oh my God, this is the crème de la crème.'" When the deal still wasn't closed, Clinton aides sent top pollster Mark Penn to New York to meet with Shiffrin for a one-on-one session about polling data. The two couples eventually joined the Clinton camp, and say they have since bundled more than $650,000 for her.

--Matthew Mosk

By Washington Post editors  |  October 8, 2007; 3:31 PM ET
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