RALEIGH, N.C. - When Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards swept into Birmingham in January, he didn’t have any problem finding a raft of big-time contributors.
Alabamians, many of them plaintiff’s attorneys, collected $185,000 for Edwards’ presidential bid.
It was an easy sell, said Gibson Vance, a 42-year old trial lawyer and lead fundraiser in Alabama for both of Edwards’ presidential runs.
“We didn’t have anybody who supported him in 2004 say, `I’m not supporting him this time,’” said Vance. “I’ve not run into anybody who said, `I’m not for John. I’m for somebody else.’”
Similar scenes were repeated in cities across the country, enabling Edwards to raise $14 million during the first three months of the year. That was less than the $26 million raised by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and the $25 million raised by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. But it was enough money for him to remain in the top tier of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Overall, Edwards has lost some donations to Clinton and Obama - roughly a quarter of his 2004 donors, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records. In particular, Edwards suffered some political hemorrhaging in the New York and Chicago areas - the home bases of his two leading rivals. Edwards’ 2004 donors gave $322,240 to Clinton during the first three months and $279,898 to Obama for the same period.
But for the most part, Edwards has been able to keep together the core of donors who fueled his 2004 run for the presidency.
Brent Coon, a trial lawyer from Beaumont, Texas, helped raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for Edwards during a Texas trip this year. He said it’s natural that trial lawyers and organized labor would gravitate to Edwards given his background as one of the nation’s most successful trial lawyers before he was elected to the Senate from North Carolina.
The most difficult challenge, Coon said, is convincing potential donors that Edwards can defeat Clinton in the primary.
“I think he is the probable winner of the General Election if he can get past the primary,” Coon said. “I think the primary is the big roadblock. Mrs. Clinton has very strong backing as well. I think she would be a great president. But we are better off with a candidate who is not as polarizing.”
Some Democratic donors, such as film director Rob Reiner, are conflicted, so they gave to Edwards and to Clinton.
Among the double givers was Richard Mithoff, a well-known Houston trial lawyer. But Mithoff said that between the two candidates, he prefers Edwards, whom he describes as “a good friend” and “a very decent and caring family man.”
“I find a lot of Democrats who are pleased with the field of choices we have and are somewhat undecided who to support now,” Mithoff said.
Edwards’ 2004 supporters have so far given him $1.9 million for the current race, and the campaign has more than made up for losses to Clinton and Obama by finding new sources of money. For example, Edwards has raised at least $1.7 million on the Internet, mainly from small donors. There was an uptick in small contributions after Elizabeth Edwards announced in March that her cancer had recurred.
Among Edwards’ 2004 donors now supporting Clinton are Edgar Bronfman Jr. of New York, chairman of Warner Music group; tobacco heir Smith Bagley of Washington; and Richard Swann, a corporate and property lawyer from Orlando, Fla.
“I was not really active in Edwards’ campaign in 2004,” Swann said. “But we had some mutual friends and I voted for him. I have long ties to (Clinton) and think she would make a great president. I think she’s the most moderate one in the field and she is strong on defense.”
Edwards dominated fundraising North Carolina.
Clinton plans a fundraiser in Charlotte on May 20, but she has so far not found North Carolina fertile ground.
“There are a few people giving in the Triangle, and there is a little network in Charlotte,” said Richard Sullivan, a Clinton fundraiser who lives in Raleigh. “But it’s pretty much locked up for Edwards.”
Former state Sen. Tom Taft, a Greenville, N.C., trial lawyer, has ties to the Clintons that go back to 1963, when he and Bill attended a Boys Nation meeting and met President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden. Taft estimates that he contributed more than $75,000 to Clinton during the 1990s and more recently gave $4,000 to Hillary Clinton’s Senate re-election race last year.
But he is giving to Edwards this time and plans to hold a Greenville fundraiser for him this year.
“I felt that Sen. Clinton probably has a higher percentage chance of getting the nomination than Sen. Edwards,” Taft said. “But Sen. Edwards probably has a better chance of winning the national race than Sen. Clinton does.”
“In the end,” Taft said, “I felt like I had to stay with my fellow Tar Heel out of loyalty to my state and to my more current friendship with Sen. Edwards.”