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War Can’t Stop Money Chase

The war in Iraq has changed some things in Washington, but it’s increasingly clear that it has had virtually no impact on the business of fundraising, which proceeds as if the current Persian Gulf conflict had never begun.

Some lawmakers serving in sensitive posts, such as House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), have brushed off suggestions that partisan activities are best laid aside during wartime.

Hunter will be a special guest at a fundraiser Wednesday hosted by defense industry giant Lockheed Martin Corp. and lobbyist Bill Wight, who represents General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, both big defense contractors. The fundraiser will benefit Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a junior member of the Armed Services Committee.

Hunter is also planning two days of “roundtable breakfasts” at the Capitol Hill Club this week for supporters, many of whom are expected to be lobbyists for defense companies.

Hunter, who took over the gavel at Armed Services in January and can often be found these days huddling with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Meyers on Iraq, sees no problem with using his position to help raise money, even during wartime.

“You don’t give the folks in the defense industry special access,” said Hunter. “But they do have a right to participate in the political process and have their voices be heard.”

Hunter said he has voted in the past against weapons programs favored by big defense firms, and the veteran California Republican insisted there was “no quid pro quo” offered to lobbyists if attending one of his fundraisers.

But some of Hunter’s GOP colleagues are keeping a slightly lower profile due to the Iraq conflict and privately question whether Hunter should be more cautious himself.

“I wouldn’t do something like that, not right now,” said one Senate Republican who knows Hunter well. “It displays a certain lack of sensitivity on his part.”

Other senior lawmakers in both parties continue to fundraise, although they are careful in their approach.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), whose fundraising schedule was taken “under advisement” when the Iraq war began, held an Illinois event last week that included an appearance by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). While only $75,000 was raised at the gathering, a modest sum for two such high-profile Republicans, approximately 1,500 people attended, which a GOP strategist said demonstrated “a hunger” for information and an outlet to express support for the war.

Hastert, who has taken a wait-and-see attitude on the issue, will attend a fundraiser in Ohio for Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) this week, although other events are still being scheduled on a case-by-case basis.

But Republican leaders, GOP insiders declared, will not try to cash in on the war or the resurgence in support it has generated for President Bush and the party, at least not directly.

“What it won’t do is help you on fundraising,” said a top Republican strategist of Iraq. “What it will do is help [politically] on questions of safety and national security,” issues traditionally dominated by Republicans.

Another GOP strategist said that, in a sense, Republican Congressional leaders must now press their fundraising efforts even harder because President Bush “will suck up so much money” for his own re-election campaign, as much as $250 million or more in some estimates, when it is formally launched.

“Bush will suck everything in once he gets going, so we’re forced to keep going. People are not advertising it as much, but [fundraising has] been rolling along,” the source said.

And even in an off-year, lawmakers face more pressure than ever from their leaders to kick in to party coffers because of the new hard-money restrictions imposed by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

At a meeting of the National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday, for instance, GOP leaders decided to seek $25,000 from each rank-and-file Republican, and $100,000 from elected leaders, for the May 21 joint House-Senate dinner honoring Bush.

“It just never stops for a second,” said a top Republican lobbyist who is often hit up for contributions. “The war has not changed anything, as as far as I can tell. People are just a little more circumspect in how they ask.”

Democrats have also continued to raise money as usual.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spent much of the week leading up to the March 31 reporting deadline calling donors to help boost Democratic fundraising totals. One House Democratic leadership aide said if Republicans aren’t backing off, Democrats can’t either.

The NRCC raised $22 million in the quarter, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised just $7 million.

“They’ll outraise us, but we’ll have enough,” said the Democratic leadership aide. “We can’t slow down.There’s no concern about slowing down [because of the war] and nobody suggested that we should.”

Democratic presidential candidates also continued rounding up donations in an intense race to post impressive fundraising totals in their first reports to the Federal Election Commission covering fundraising from Jan. 1 to March 31.

Indeed, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) pumped new momentum into his presidential effort when he announced he hauled in $7.4 million during the three-month period, just a hair more than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Edwards and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who raised $3.6 million, openly referred to Iraq and their support for the war in last-minute e-mail messages sent to potential contributors just before the deadline.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), another pro-war Democrat, boasted that 70 percent of his $3 million take came in March — the month that military action began in Iraq.

In all, Democratic presidential candidates took in more than $20 million in the period.

They weren’t alone in working references to Iraq into their fundraising appeals.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) sent out a pitch even as U.S. troops appeared to bog down in Iraq after initial gains. In the e-mail, Foley — who is laying the groundwork for a Senate race — informed supporters he was about to meet with Rumsfeld to get a war update. Then Foley asked them to consider making “as generous a contribution as you possibly can to our campaign.” Despite some criticism, he raised more than $700,000 in the January-to-March period.

But top fundraisers of both parties said there was some irony in the reason that candidates have not been willing to call a time out on fundraising activities — last year’s campaign finance reform legislation.

Although McCain-Feingold was intended to slow the flow of money into politics, many believe it has actually increased the drive for cash by establishing quarterly filing periods in non-election years.

Before the law, candidates were required to file reports only once every six months in the year before elections. Now they must file four times a year, meaning that potential opponents have more opportunities to characterize their foes as weak, at least as far as fundraising.

In Foley’s fundraising pitch, for example, he noted that the March 31 deadline was looming.

“The Florida and Washington media will all be closely examining the fundraising reports of the likely contenders to separate those candidates who will be able to run a credible race and those who will not,” he wrote.

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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