Special-Interest Groups Gain Clout in Presidential Politics ; to Woo Backers, Democrats Go to Endless Forums, Each Catering to a Different Group

Article excerpt

At a stage in the presidential campaign that typically consists largely of trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, fundraisers, and policy rollouts, Democratic hopefuls are spending growing amounts of time rubbing elbows not with voters on the trail but with each other at interest-group showcases.

This week's event with union members in Chicago was the latest in a proliferation of candidate forums hosted by key Democratic constituencies from African-Americans to gays and lesbians to abortion-rights activists. The forums are increasingly shaping the schedule and rhythm of the campaign: Next week alone, candidates could wind up attending as many as five more.

To some extent, the ballooning number of forums reflects - perhaps perpetuates - the field's competitiveness.

Given there are nine Demo-crats in the race, and no outright front-runner, candidates can't afford to skip any opportunity to woo supporters, even as they struggle to stand out among a crowded lineup of contenders.

But it also highlights the growing power of interest groups in electoral politics. As political parties grow weaker under new campaign-finance laws, and as activist organizations draw new strength from the Internet, interest groups are playing a more important role in the political process, offering candidates a potentially critical form of organizational support, and an efficient means of getting their message out to particular constituencies.

"Interest groups have become more important over time," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University. "Candidates are getting a lot of bang for their buck by going to these groups and talking to them and hopefully winning some converts."

Capitalizing on competition

Both parties rely on interest groups to motivate and turn out base supporters in elections. But analysts agree these organizations have come to play a larger role with Democrats, particularly as the Christian Coalition - formerly one of the GOP's most prominent factions - has declined in strength in recent years.

The dynamic may be further exacerbated for Democrats this year because they are facing a competitive primary battle, whereas President Bush is unopposed for the nomination. Although most Democratic groups are likely to wait for the general election to throw their strength behind a candidate, some may exercise their clout in the primary battle. If the AFL-CIO endorses Rep. Richard Gephardt, for example, it could provide a significant boost to his candidacy and alter the shape of the race.

Moreover, even organizations that don't endorse a primary candidate may use the competitiveness of the field to demand attention - and promises - from all the Democratic contenders. When Congressman Gephardt, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman recently skipped an NAACP forum, the group's president Kweisi Mfume publicly excoriated them, forcing all three to make a hasty trip to the conference the next day to apologize. …

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