WASHINGTON - Trailing in the money race, the Democratic National Committee has launched a high-stakes effort to capitalize on vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman with a fund-raising campaign aimed at Jewish donors who have not been politically active in the past.
Last week, Connecticut bagel magnate Marvin Lender dined in Washington with more than 25 Democrats to plot strategy for the coast-to-coast effort.
Lender insisted that he had set no specific fund-raising targets but added that "everyone's committing to serious dollars."
The fund-raising drive will be part of a larger DNC push to raise at least $50 million over the last two months of the campaign.
"We're going to do everything we can to be competitive" with the Republicans, said Alan Solomont, a health care consultant in Boston and a top fund-raiser for Vice President Al Gore. "We're going to be outraised ... but we're going to pull out all the stops here."
For the Democrats, Lieberman - the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket - has opened up a new and potentially rich vein for fund raising.
His nomination has energized Jewish donors who have been increasingly reluctant to give to political campaigns, Democrats say. One Gore money raiser likened it to the outpouring of support from Catholics for John F. Kennedy's candidacy in 1960 or the response from Greek-Americans to the 1988 campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
Even before the Democratic convention in Los Angeles had ended, Lieberman was holding private meetings with wealthy Democratic donors. And on Aug. 24, he joined Gore at a downtown Washington hotel for a kosher dinner that raised $1 million from 20 people who donated $50,000 each.
One well-connected Gore fund-raiser estimated Lieberman's nomination could be worth $25 million to the ticket.
Lender is an example of how valuable Lieberman might be.
As former national president of the United Jewish Appeal, he helped raise about $725 million a year for Jewish causes in the 1990s. But his political contributions have been relatively small.
He had given a total of $13,500 through June 30 of this election season, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But Lender's new effort will likely be worth millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, to the party.
Lieberman's nomination "has within the Jewish community energized a group of people who have historically not been involved," said Lender.
"I am out recruiting people in the Jewish community to help on the fund-raising side as well as on the campaign side, to bring out voters," he said.
Democrats could use the help. The DNC has raised $64 million for the 2000 campaign, barely half the $124 million the Republican National Committee has collected. The Democrats' cash balance is also about half the GOP's, $35 million compared with $68 million, as of June 30, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Of the Democrats' total, about $24 million has been in donations subject to federal limits; an individual can give up to $20,000 per year to a political party. The remainder has been in unregulated "soft money."
By tapping donors who have not reached the $20,000 limit, the new drive is specifically designed to collect more regulated contributions, an area in which the Democrats have lagged.
Federal law requires that a national party must spend about $2 in regulated money for every $1 in soft money that it spends.
Some members of the Jewish community have been wary of an anti-Semitic backlash ever since Lieberman was tapped.
"America seems ready for a Jewish candidate, but the Jewish community is not ready," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Anxiety is very high."
A fund-raiser aimed specifically at Jewish donors might only heighten such concerns. Democratic Party officials sought to play down the Jewish angle.
"I think it would be wrong to say we're going to tap only one vein," a party spokeswoman said. "We're tapping anything that's legal."
Mitchell Berger, a Democratic fund-raiser in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said a dinner with Gore and Lieberman at his house last week attracted not only Jewish donors but non-Jews, such as supporters of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley who had been disaffected with Gore. The event raised more than $600,000, Berger said.
But Lender was not bashful about his courtship of Jewish money, saying his effort would be "reaching out to Jewish people all over the country."
"There are some who have some concerns. You know, Jews are supposed to be shushed," Lender said. "I don't subscribe to that. I'm Jewish. I work very hard in the Jewish community."