Democrats Scramble to Fill Campaign War Chest

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Al Gore's challenge to George W. Bush in the wake of the Super Tuesday primaries — twice-a-week debates, joint town meetings, forswearing party soft money — sounded high-minded, but it was really wishful thinking. Without some sort of seismic shift in the ground rules, Gore faces a daunting task: keeping the Democratic National Committee flush enough to compete with the expected barrage of GOP TV ads all spring and summer.

The night Gore swept to victory, party chairman Ed Rendell was at the New Jersey home of State Senator Ray Lesniak, telling him and other top Gore fund-raisers that he wants to bring in $45 million to run ads in 10 to 15 battleground states from April until the August Democratic convention. He told the group he expects Bush and the RNC to raise twice that much.

Insiders grouse that Rendell has failed to net big dollars, but the former mayor of Philadelphia, who plans to run for governor in 2002, is considered too important to sweep aside. "Can you envision the vice president or President asking me to leave?" the self-assured chairman said to TIME. He boasts $10 million in February receipts, most of it from events headlined by the President.

Bill Clinton remains the party's best draw; he could tally as much as $25 million before the convention, a Democratic insider estimates. A gala tribute to Clinton in May, staged by money magician Terry McAuliffe, is expected to raise at least $5 million. Gore will begin pitching in later this month. On March 30, with two Gore dinners in Washington and three Clinton events in New York City, the DNC hopes to bring in close to $3 million.

Last week Rendell sent pleas to the DNC's biggest hitters to contribute sooner rather than later for the planned air offensive this spring, but he has competition. The Gore campaign hasn't finished raising the roughly $44 million it's allowed to spend before the convention under federal matching-fund rules (by which Bush isn't bound). Gore remains about $3 million shy of finishing a task that, under his original plan, was supposed to be done last fall.

Meanwhile, Gore is moving faster than past presumptive nominees to take over his party's apparatus. Campaign officials Donna Brazile and Michael Whouley are being pressured to move from Gore headquarters in Nashville to the DNC, and national finance chairman Johnny Hayes may soon follow.