If anyone can upstage Bill Clinton, it is the man who pays the President's way. So when Terry McAuliffe got everyone hooting and hollering at a Democratic National Committee barbecue last week, Clinton was clapping the loudest. McAuliffe chaired what was supposed to be a tribute to the only Democrat twice elected President in 50 years. But many guests who paid $25,000 a table at Washington's MCI Center also came to salute that other guy on the dais: the fund raiser in chief.
Last month Republicans seemed on their way to overshadowing the king of campaign cash when they raised $21.3 million in one night for their presidential nominee, George W. Bush. It was the most ever netted in a campaign event, but that record lasted only as long as it took McAuliffe to announce his numbers to a standing ovation Wednesday night. He topped the G.O.P. by 25% and in one evening brought in a total that almost matched all the soft money raised by the party in the 1992 presidential contest. "I want to thank the greatest fund raiser in the history of the universe," said Vice President Al Gore, who hopes to boost his presidential race with TV ads paid for by the proceeds.
Some guests were less sure of Gore's success than they were of McAuliffe's importance in getting him on his way. In jeans and cowboy boots meant to mock the G.O.P.'s black-tie formality, they applauded the man they have come to regard as the party's Lee Iacocca: the marketer who figured out how to diversify the product line to attract new buyers. McAuliffe has succeeded in broadening the Democrats' financial base, which consisted mostly of organized labor, by selling the "New Democrat" gospel of Clintonomics to entrepreneurs who have benefited from low interest rates, investors whose fortunes have grown with the stock market and trial lawyers who want to protect the right of plaintiffs to unlimited damages from corporations. What better evidence of the "Mack Magic," as he himself calls it, than the balance of heavy hitters lined up for last week's gala: of the 26 donors of $500,000, just over a third represented labor unions.
But the triumph of McAuliffe this week seems on a collision course with Americans' growing dissatisfaction about the ways in which campaigns are financed. Voters know instinctively now that Presidents and politicians may come and go, but the men who collect the checks and rack up the favors amass the real power. And so far, none of the proposed reforms from either party would change that. While Clinton and his kingmaker have reinvented the rules of Democratic fund raising, that achievement has also brought scandal to the presidency and left McAuliffe with hefty legal bills. "When it comes to political money, this is a period when Rome is burning and McAuliffe is the fiddler," says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a nonprofit group dedicated to tracking the influence of money on politics. Wertheimer is especially critical of McAuliffe for "connecting six-figure donors with elected officials in a position to do favors for them." But McAuliffe argues that what he does is simply grease the great wheels of democracy. "You need money to get out your message," he says. But what can donors expect out of their President in return for their largesse? At most, a social outing with him, McAuliffe contends.