WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain's reformist presidential campaign for the White House met head-on last night with what some say is a glaring contradiction.
The Republican insurgent, who pledges to "break the Washington iron triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation," collected big money here at a fund-raiser organized by lobbyists with business interests that McCain, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is in a position to influence.
Because that committee handles legislation that affects about 80 percent of the business community, it might be observed that McCain is at the center of that iron triangle.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who is locked in a bruising battle with McCain for their party's nomination, has pointed to McCain's close ties with some lobbyists as evidence that the senator's promises of reform are "Washington double-talk."
In his defense, McCain argues that it is easier for someone like him, who understands the system, to change it. He adds that donors know his goal is to break the grip of big money over decision-making in Washington.
"I welcome the support of anyone in the form of thousand-dollar contributions," the Arizona senator said in a TV interview, referring to the maximum legal donation by an individual and also the top ticket price to last night's fund-raiser. "But they know clearly where I stand. A lot of these people that are going to be contributing, they're tired of this system, too."
McCain seemed to display some sensitivity to the charge of hypocrisy by canceling plans to attend the Washington event after the Bush attacks had started. And his campaign stressed that the fund-raiser was one of 18 campaign events throughout the nation that McCain addressed last night by satellite from South Carolina before moving to the Web to chat with supporters online.
Even so, McCain's Washington fund-raiser -- organized by a 46-member "Victory Committee" -- is a classic product of the system he vows to smash. Two-thirds of the Victory Committee members on the invitation are registered lobbyists based in Washington's K Street corridor.
Their task was to sell tickets at $500 and $1,000 a head for the reception at the Willard Hotel. They were expected to produce about half of the $500,000 collected last night.
Most of the lobbyists on the committee represent clients with business before McCain's committee. Railroads, airlines, telecommunications companies, automakers, publishers and high-tech companies are among the corporate interests whose advocates passed the hat for McCain.
Many of these same companies, such as US West, CSX Corp., Time Warner and Microsoft, are also among the top contributors to his campaign. Corporations, which are barred from donating directly to campaigns, can give through their employees and political action committees in a widespread practice known as "bundling."
When McCain got to the point in his televised speech last night where he promised to take government "out of the hands of the special interests," many in the crowd hooted and cheered.
"We ought to get bumper stickers that say 'special interests for McCain,' " quipped Tom C. Korologos, a lobbyist for a variety of interests, including Major League Baseball.
Several lobbyists who helped organize the event said they were acting out of friendship or support for his reformist cause, not out of expectations of favors.
"John McCain is a hell of a guy. I've known him for years and have a great deal of respect for him," said Robbie Aiken, a lobbyist for a Phoenix electric company who also volunteers as an advance man. "Anybody who thinks they're going to get something for helping McCain is just naive."
McCain has received a variety of help from lobbyists and corporate backers, particularly during the meager early days of his race.
Among his key advisers is Kenneth Duberstein, a former Reagan official who lobbies for United Airlines and CSX. McCain's campaign manager is Rick Davis, who is on leave from a firm that lobbies for satellite and telecommunications companies.
A third top adviser is former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, a lobbyist whose clients include an airline trade association and AT&T.;
Corporate jet travel
McCain also benefited from corporate jet travel, courtesy of Paxson Communications, and from donations by executives of other companies regulated by his committee.
The senator shrugs off questions about the propriety of such favors.
"We had almost no money when we were using the corporate jets," McCain said this week. "I could not get around from one place to another and meet my campaign schedule without it. Now, we have a lot of money thanks to the Internet and our successes, and we're able to charter a jet."
Bush raised more than four times as much as McCain in 1999 -- $67.6 million compared with $15.5 million. McCain's corporate support pales beside the largess Bush has received.
Banks, investment houses, oil and gas companies, real estate ventures, insurers and construction firms figure prominently on the Texas governor's list of donors. Bush took in $526,603 from lobbyists last year, compared with $116,675 for McCain.
McCain's landslide upset victory over Bush in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1, however, led to a surge of contributions to the senator's campaign.
"Until two weeks ago I couldn't get anyone to take my calls; Bush had this town locked up," said Patrick E. O'Donnell, a lobbyist with many clients with business before McCain's committee. O'Donnell, who sent out about 100 solicitation notes on McCain's behalf to drum up the crowd for last night's event, added, "Now, all of a sudden, they're saying, 'Maybe we can get our board to take another look at PAC contributions."
Both Republican candidates are vulnerable to criticism of their campaign financing, said James Thurber, a political scholar at American University. But the issue is more troublesome for McCain because he offers himself as someone who would work to wipe out the polluting effect of corporate cash in Washington.
"One thing I was told when I got into this campaign finance issue is: get ready to be called a hypocrite," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who has joined with McCain in an unsuccessful attempt to ban corporate donations to political parties in the form of unlimited and unregulated "soft money."
Feingold said he is less concerned about relatively small donations from individual lobbyists than about lobbyists' ability to direct huge sums of corporate cash into the political system through soft money or other means.
McCain's advocates contend that his record on the Commerce Committee offers no evidence that he is beholden to contributors. They describe his philosophy as distrustful of government and regulation, though he sometimes threatens legislation against companies that block competition or that refuse to protect consumers.
"We disagree with him on many issues, but I do believe he is a firm believer in competition," said Gene Kimmelman of the nonpartisan Consumers Union, who has worked with McCain on telecommunications and airline issues. "He just sees government intervention as a last resort. We would move sooner."
Lobbyists who are aiding McCain profess no fear that the senator will overturn the system that has given them easy access to policy-makers.
"I'm one of the guys who he wants to put out of business, but I'm confident that I'm not going to be out of a job," O'Donnell said. "The Democrats were in power for 40 years and they didn't change the system. I don't think it's going to happen now."