The Money Machine: Bush Credits Grass-Roots Enthusiasm for His Fund-Raising Triumph. Look Again: At the Heart of His Operation Are a Handful of GOP Kingmakers Who Placed Their Bets Early

Article excerpt

You've probably never heard of Heinz Prechter. The diminutive 57-year-old Bavarian immigrant made a fortune by inventing the sunroof for the auto industry. He is known by his friends for his good cheer and for driving expensive, German-made sports cars through the streets of Detroit at high speeds. The name Brad (Fargo) Freeman may not be familiar, either. Freeman made millions as a merchant banker in Los Angeles. A bon vivant who squires models around Beverly Hills, Calif., Freeman is known for his practical jokes, like placing for sale signs on the manicured lawns of his business buddies.

Prechter and Freeman and a half dozen or so other wealthy Republican businessmen deserve to be better known--as potential kingmakers. If George W. Bush survives John McCain's challenge and goes on to win in November, the biggest single reason may be money. Through 1999 Bush had raised a staggering $67 million, four times as much as McCain and more than the two Democratic rivals, Gore and Bradley, combined. Bush has raised so much that he has been able to forswear federal matching funds, freeing him of campaign spending limits. After the primaries, when the Democratic nominee will be tapped out, Bush can afford to keep his ads on TV up until the summer conventions.

To hear the governor's campaign aides talk, he has been the beneficiary of spontaneous, down-home enthusiasm. At last count, more than 170,000 individuals have written checks that, by law, cannot exceed $1,000 apiece. "This has been a totally grass-roots, broad-based individual effort across America," says Don Evans, the silver-haired Midland, Texas, oilman who oversees Bush's fund-raising. "People talk about special interests," says Freeman, who is Bush's top moneyman in California. "How can you have special interests when you have 170,000 donors?"

The answer is: by knowing how to manipulate the rules. Bush's money machine has been carefully constructed by a small group of men who are experts at the art of "bundling" $1,000 contributions. All presidential campaigns exploit such techniques, but, profiting from flush times, the Bush team has taken the game to a new level. The story of how these champion fund-raisers chose Bush as their standard-bearer may be the most important saga of the campaign. It reveals to what degree the governor has benefited from a powerful network of wealthy businessmen, who are likely to have his ear if he is elected president.

Their common bond is making money, giving money to the Republican Party and manly pursuits, like hunting and golf. In addition to Prechter, Freeman and Evans (who recruited Bush to his Bible-study group), the core players include Peter Terpeluck, a high-energy Washington lobbyist; Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, lobbying arm of the electric-power industry; Ray Hunt, scion of the Texas oil fortune, and John Hennessy, a Wall Street investment banker. Their friends include pharmaceutical heir Robert Wood Johnson, who this week bought the New York Jets for $635 million and entertained his cronies on one Bush hunting trip by bringing along an elephant gun. About 150 of these champion fund-raisers have been designated as "Pioneers" by the Bush campaign. Each has raised more than $100,000 in $1,000 donations, and many have personally given hundreds of thousands of dollars in "soft money" to the Republican Party.

Most of Bush's core moneymen are not likely to ask him for jobs or explicit favors. "I don't have an agenda--and I don't give a hoot about being in government," Prechter told NEWSWEEK. One of Prechter's fund-raising associates remarked, "He does this because he loves being a player, loves being a part of the action." Even so, Prechter has profited in the past from his Bush associations. Named to accompany President Bush on a trade mission to Japan in 1992, Prechter used the trip to sign a lucrative deal granting his American Sun Roof Co. rights to put sunroofs on Hondas. …