Still Buttonholing Donors After All These Years

Glenn, Haig, Tsongas scramble to pay off debts, showing cost of elections

SEN. John Glenn raised more than $1 million for his presidential election campaign last year. The problem is, Senator Glenn hasn't run for president in 11 years.

Ever since he lost the 1984 Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale, the Ohio Democrat has struggled to pay back the money he borrowed. Despite years of black-tie fund-raisers and direct-mail campaigns, he's still $3.3 million short.

Like the campaigns of dozens of other long-defeated presidential candidates, Glenn's White House bid lives on in a computer database at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and in the ''delinquent'' files of banks and creditors.

While the former astronaut's plight is unique in its size and duration, it has come to represent a troubling trend: the increasingly prohibitive cost of running for president.

''The old American notion that anyone can grow up to be president has become a farce,'' writes Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics here ''Today, anyone who wants to be president has to first win the wealth primary. It may not be an official part of the process, but it's the decisive one.''

This year, early fund-raising is more important than ever. As more states move their 1996 primary dates forward in a battle for influence, candidates have less time between them to restock their financial pantries. To be on the safe side in 1996, experts say, a candidate will have to raise about $20 million before the primary season even begins.

Indeed, several prominent Republicans have chosen not to seek the nomination this year, citing, among other things, the onerous prospect of paying for it.

At a recent Monitor breakfast, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp said the difficulty of fund-raising - not to mention the money he still owes on his 1988 presidential bid - helped keep him out of the race.

''We're sitting around talking about fund-raising as if it's a little sideshow; it is not,'' he said. ''It is the major effort through which any man or woman who wants to run for president must go....''

''Frankly, I don't enjoy the fund-raising,'' Mr. Kemp added, ''and Jack and Joanne Kemp don't have $25 million.''

Like most candidates, Kemp lays much of the blame on the FEC. Under a 20-year-old FEC guideline, presidential candidates are not allowed to receive more than $1,000 from any individual or $5,000 from any political action group.

While the law was designed to prevent wealthy individuals from ''buying'' candidates, and sitting presidents from extracting huge sums from special interests, Kemp charges that it also forces candidates to spend too much time on the telephone, persuading supporters to pony up checks.

The first hurdle

In order to receive federal matching funds, which are distributed in January, candidates must raise $5,000 in each of 20 states from contributions of $250 or less.

''The FEC has made it almost impossible for anybody to run that is not going to be at least four or five rungs up the ladder, fund-raising-wise, to start,'' Kemp said.

The result, laments Josh Goldstein of the Center for Responsive Politics, is that those with the deepest pockets usually win. Since 1976, he notes, the candidate with the most money going into the primary season has become the nominee, with the sole exception of Ronald Reagan in 1979.

''The people deciding who gets to be the nominee are the powers,'' Mr. Goldstein says, ''not the public.''

Losers, he adds, are often saddled with debts that are tough to relieve, especially if they are not a member of Congress. Last Wednesday, for instance, President Clinton hosted a fund-raiser for former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, who has had little success in paying off $140,000 he borrowed for his 1992 campaign.

Although candidates are not personally liable for money loaned to their campaign committees, the political pressure to pay it off can be intense. Glenn, for example, is trying to reach a settlement with creditors that will include $500,000 of his own money.

Glenn is not alone. Alexander Haig owes $300,000 from his 1988 bid. The Rev. Jesse Jackson owes $150,000, and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon owes $114,000. Paul Tsongas, a former Democratic senator from Massachusetts, owes $233,000 from 1992, and even billionaire Ross Perot has a $2 million obligation.

In the current race, three GOP contenders, Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan, and Rep. Robert Dornan are already in the hole. Congressman Dornan of California leads the pack at $114,000.

But even if a candidate is willing to assume debt, banks and creditors may not be willing to extend it.

Anne Hall, a vice president at Banc One in Columbus, Ohio, says that since her bank loaned money to the Glenn campaign, it has tightened its lending rules: Instead of using ''letters of comfort'' from fund-raisers as collateral, candidates must now offer up hard assets, or find a wealthy co-signer.

Creditors are also getting tough. WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., for example, requires full payment for campaign commercials two days in advance. Gail Cooper, a consultant at Bell Atlantic in Maryland, says campaigns must pay a $200 deposit per telephone line installed, and each line is limited to $100 of long distance a month.

Fewer tax dollars

While more experts have advocated increased public support for presidential campaigns, the idea has been thwarted by the fact that fewer Americans every year check the box on their tax forms that earmarks $1 for federal campaign funding.

Ted Welch, chief fund-raiser for GOP candidate Lamar Alexander, says the solution would be to raise the contribution limits to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political action committees.

Yet Mr. Welch argues that despite the rigors of raising money, Mr. Alexander has still remained competitive without a Washington power base, a personal fortune, or a household name.

Alexander has raised more than $7 million already, Welch notes, a figure that puts the former Tennessee governor in striking range of Kansas Sen. Bob Dole ($13 million) and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm ($11 million).

''I wouldn't say Lamar was four or five rungs up the ladder before he started,'' Welch says.

In the end, says William Schneider, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a candidate's decision to run has more to do with desire.

''If you have a burning drive to be president, the idea of going into debt won't stand in your way,'' he says.

''But if you don't like begging people for money, if you look at it as a burden, then you shouldn't run for president.''

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