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Republican Presidential Hopefuls Start Campaigning for Contributions

By Ronald Brownstein
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

It isn't the skiing that's bringing former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander to Aspen, Colo., this weekend. It's the fishing. For dollars, that is.

Alexander, who's planning to formally announce his bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination later this month, is scheduled to spend much of Friday and Saturday at a private retreat of the GOP's Team 100 - the elite corps of Republican supporters who contribute at least $100,000 to the party during each presidential election.

Forget voters or political consultants or media bigwigs: At this point in the presidential campaign, there may be no group of people whose support is more prized by the candidates moving toward the Republican race. "If someone is in a position to give $100,000 to the Republican National Committee, they are in a position to raise substantial funds for a presidential campaign," says Ted Welch, a Tennessee real estate developer spearheading Alexander's fund-raising effort.

Alexander will not be the only politician in Aspen. California's Gov. Pete Wilson is also dropping by. And other GOP contenders and possible contenders have worked the group in previous meetings.

From Aspen to Miami, Dallas to New York, the money hunt is on for the Republicans seeking the party's 1996 nomination. Fully a year before the first Republican voters go to the polls next February in Iowa and New Hampshire, the potential Republican competitors are already scrambling in what is often called "the first primary" - the battle for the hearts and wallets of the party's financial donors.

The money primary is actually the first critical test of political strength. Indeed, the contenders' ability to raise money functions as a kind of political stock market - an indication of whether the activists who back up their opinions with checks are buying the messages candidates are selling.

"Financial support reflects political support," says Charlie Black, a senior strategist for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. "You've got to have a good organization to raise money and that reflects where you are politically."

The reason is the structure of the campaign finance laws. Federal law will allow the candidates to spend as much as $45 million next year; but the regulations limit them to individual contributions of $1,000 or less.

To raise so much money in such bite-sized units requires an enormous grass-roots organization - the kind that can only be built by candidates with a broad base of support. That's one reason why the candidate who raises the most money in the year before the primaries has almost always won the nomination since 1976, according to a study by GOP fund-raising consultant Stan Huckaby.