Washington -- When Thomas L. Siebert opened his Annapolis home to Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign last summer, the fundraising reception had a familiar feel. In 1992, Siebert collected tens of thousands of dollars in the same house near the Severn River to prop up Bill Clinton's presidential bid.
After Clinton won, Siebert got a diplomatic plum: He was named U.S. ambassador to Sweden. Today, though, he's known as a bundler: one of hundreds of money men and women who scoop up campaign contributions on behalf of presidential candidates they support.
The practice has been around for years, but bundling has grown more important as candidates raise record sums to spend in a presidential election campaign that some experts estimate will cost $1 billion. Already, more than 2,000 bundlers are at work in the 2008 campaign, according to an analysis by the watchdog group Public Citizen.
"It's not novel, but it has been taken to new heights," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. "The public should care, because to raise the sums that are now necessary to win, they [the bundlers] are going to be even more influential than ever before."
Some bundlers, like Siebert, are longtime friends of a candidate, with successful careers and a keen interest in politics.
"I never sought anything from Bill Clinton when I helped him the first time," said Siebert, a wealthy telecommunications lawyer who met the former president when both were Georgetown University undergraduates.
"I'll tell you what I did like: I knew that when I helped him, we would be pretty A-list for invitations," he said. "And we got invited to all kinds of things." Siebert was also asked to head the American Embassy in Stockholm from 1994 to 1997.
Others are new to the game, eager to back a winner and cultivate relationships that could benefit them and their clients.
Occasionally, their participation can be detrimental to the candidate they are trying to help.
Earlier this year, Democratic bundler Norman Hsu, a fugitive charged with fraud in California, garnered unwanted attention for Hillary Rodham Clinton after his history came to light. Clinton returned more than $800,000 Hsu had raised, some of it from questionable sources.
With so much money being collected, the potential for abuse has grown as bundlers try to fulfill their promises, analysts say.
"On the surface, there is nothing illegal," said Steven Billett, a former Maryland and federal lobbyist who heads the legislative affairs program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "The problem is they work right up to the ragged edge of what is legal and what is not."
Justice Department investigators are gathering information on money raised by Clinton from New York City's Chinatown community, after the Los Angeles Times reported last month on donations from waiters, dishwashers and other low-wage earners who might have been coerced.
Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has returned contributions from the 7- and 8-year-old children of bundler Aris Mardirossian, a Montgomery County developer and engineer, after inquiries from USA Today.
Top government positions, invitations to state dinners and entree to the Oval Office are some of the perquisites that await many of the best-connected bundlers - time-honored rewards if their candidate succeeds.
"We live in a town where access means everything," Billett said. "If you raise $2 million for a presidential campaign and that person is elected, it's hard to say 'no' when they need an appointment with a chief of staff."
The practice of bundling is legal. Federal campaign rules allow intermediaries to package donations from individuals of $2,300 or less with no overall limit.
When he ran for president, George W. Bush refined the technique, creating tiers for top fund-raisers and appealing to their competitiveness. "Pioneers" were responsible for collecting $100,000, and "Rangers" raised $200,000.
"I was trying to become a 'Pioneer'," said Louis Pope, a Republican national committeeman who heads the Maryland steering committee for Mitt Romney. "I made it to 'Mustang,' which was $50,000."
All of this year's leading campaigns use similar systems.
Romney, for example, calls those who raise $250,000 "Founders," while a "Statesman" needs to collect $100,000, and a "Patriot" $50,000. Pope has a tracking number so he gets credit for contributions, but he said, "I don't really care if I make it to a certain level or not.
"It gives you a goal, but achieving that level doesn't get you anything," he said. "I have no desire to work for the government."
Disclosure laws require bundlers to file campaign reports only if they physically collect checks themselves. Most don't, however, relying instead on a tracking number system. So there is no federal record of bundlers, although some lawmakers have proposed that one be created.
Only Clinton and Obama have disclosed their bundlers this year, publishing names on their campaign Web sites. The lists have no addresses, occupations or other identifying information, however. No Republican candidate has provided a list, though donation records indicate which notable fundraisers are aligned with each candidate.
The Clinton campaign calls its top money collectors "HillRaisers," and wants them to bundle at least $100,000. The group includes Gary Gensler, former treasurer of the Maryland Democratic Party.
The Baltimore native was tapped in 1997 by then-Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, a former colleague at the investment bank Goldman Sachs, to be a Treasury undersecretary in the Clinton administration. He met Hillary Clinton about two years later, working on an insurance issue, and was struck by her "balanced and pragmatic" approach to an arcane matter.
"I told her several years ago that if she ever ran for president, I would help," he said.
In September, an event at Gensler's Chevy Chase home pulled in $400,000.
"I can't speak to what motivates others," said Gensler, who doesn't rule out a return to government if she wins. "I'm doing this because I believe in Hillary Clinton. I'd do it if she was 20 points behind in the polls."
Stewart Bainum of Chevy Chase, chairman of Choice Hotels, said he never discussed a target goal when he agreed to join Obama's national finance committee. The campaign lists him as a bundler - someone responsible for collecting at least $50,000 - but Bainum, a former Maryland state senator, said the title has little significance.
"I don't think it's anything new," he said. "When I was involved in elections, winning a few and losing others, we always had a finance committee. You ask the different members of the finance committee to raise 'X' amount of dollars."
Rudolph W. Giuliani is giving his bundlers baseball-themed names, creating a category of "All-American Team Captain" for those under age 45 who raise $1 million. In Maryland, Giuliani has the support of prominent Republican financiers, including Richard Hug and John Reith, who helped former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. raise record sums.
Hug was a Bush "Ranger" who has become an "All-Star" for Giuliani, raising at least $100,000.
When the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law ended unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties, candidates began relying more heavily on networks of associates who could reach out to more people.
Public Citizen, the advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, has compiled a database of bundlers on a Web site called "White House for Sale." It has supplemented names from Obama and Clinton with others gleaned from news accounts.
"These are people who play a disproportionate role, by far, in figuring out who the next president will be," said Taylor Lincoln, research director for the project. "And there is no class of people who are more likely to come back when the president is elected and ask for something in return."
THE CANDIDATES AND THEIR KEY MARYLAND FUND-RAISERS
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
Michael Bronfein (Baltimore): Sterling Capital investments
Lanny Davis (Potomac): counsel to Bill Clinton
John K. and April Delaney (Potomac): John is CEO of Capital Source
Gary Gensler (Brooklandville): former Clinton administration Treasury official
Matthew A. Gorman (Bethesda): former Bill Clinton campaign staffer; Fabiani and Co. public affairs
Nathan Landow (Bethesda): developer
Tom McMillen: former congressman
Susan Ness (Bethesda): former Clinton appointee to FCC
Martin O'Malley (Annapolis): governor of Maryland
Wayne Rogers (Annapolis): businessman; former state Democratic Party chairman
Thomas L. Siebert (Annapolis): attorney; former ambassador to Sweden
Stuart W. Bainum (Chevy Chase): former Manor Care CEO; former state senator
Timothy M. Broas (Chevy Chase), attorney
Reed Hundt (Chevy Chase): former FCC chairman (Clinton appointee); Charles Ross Partners investment advisers
Orlan Johnson (Prince George's County): attorney; vice chairman of University System of Maryland Board of Regents
Robert S. Litt (Chevy Chase): attorney; former U.S. deputy assistant attorney general
Aris Mardirossian (Montgomery County): engineer and developer
Spencer Overton (Chevy Chase): George Washington University law professor
Joshua Rales (Potomac): former U.S. Senate candidate; real estate and philanthropy
Steven Toll (Bethesda): attorney
Barry Nace (Chevy Chase): attorney
Patrick Regan (Chevy Chase): attorney
RUDOLPH W. GIULIANI
Michael David Epstein (Potomac): Sensormatic Security executive
Richard Hug (Arnold): businessman / entrepreneur
Barton S. Mitchell (Brooklandville): E. Stewart Mitchell Inc. Asphalt
John Reith (Baltimore): longtime Ehrlich fund-raiser; Brown investment advisors
Elaine Pevenstein (Hunt Valley): Ehrlich aide
Howard Safir (Annapolis): former New York City police commissioner
David J. Urban (Potomac): lobbyist
Bradley Wine (Bethesda): attorney
Michael J. Zarrelli (Silver Spring): Alticor Inc.
Sheldon B. Kamins (Potomac): developer
Dorothy Bush Koch (Bethesda): sister of President Bush
Bill Marriott (Potomac): hotels
Dick Marriott (Potomac): hotels
Louis Pope (Howard County): real estate
David Bossie (Ashton): president of Citizens United
Tom Collamore (Chevy Chase): Altria, former aide to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush
Chris Lamond (Chevy Chase): former Thompson aide, lobbyist
Hannah Sistare (Bethesda): National Academy of Public Administration; former Senate staffer
SOURCES: Clinton and Obama campaigns; Public Interest (a non-profit public interest organization); Sun research