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Ambassador hopefuls know how to get a look

With a new president in the White House, the mad scramble for ambassadorships by friends and political allies of President Bush has begun.

"We've gotten a lot of calls and letters from governors and other politicians," said Clay Johnson, who is on the receiving end of the lobbying efforts as the White House director of presidential personnel. "They do a good job of representing their fine citizens."

About 1,700 people have applied or were recommended to the White House for top jobs at U.S. embassies, White House aides say. Two hundred made the first cut. In the end, 49 will be chosen.

At first glance, the applicants themselves seem to have little in common, and sometimes little that would seem to qualify them for a foreign post, aside from their relationship to Bush.

Yet the vast majority of these committed Republicans have shared in a common pastime: raising money, huge quantities of it, for Bush. Significant overlap exists between the ambassadorial candidates and the Pioneers, the special roster of Bush fundraisers who rounded up at least $100,000 for the campaign. Some of them also donated another $100,000 to Bush's inaugural celebration, which was the upper limit for individuals.

As the Senate prepares to open formal debate Monday on proposals to change the campaign finance system, this selection process for some of the most prestigious diplomatic positions underscores how significant political donations can win access, and sometimes even comfortable ambassadorial jobs.

For his part, Johnson said he has no list of campaign contributors sitting beside his desk to help him decide whether contributor A is better qualified for a particular posting than contributor B. But he is not shy about saying that backing the president financially is one way of getting a foot in the door.

Every posting is approved by Bush, the first step in a long process that will include questioning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"The president responds to people he has a level of comfort with," Johnson said. "Is the person a long-time friend? How close does he feel to the person? Has the person really gone out of their way to help him become president?"

Take, for instance, Howard H. Leach of San Francisco, an agricultural business investment banker and former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee who has donated $282,000 to Bush and other Republicans. He is in line to go to the creme de la creme of ambassadorial postings, Paris, and is said to have begun studying French.

Will Farish, a horse breeder and longtime Bush family friend, is headed for London, and Richard J. Egan, an entrepreneur and major campaign contributor, has been tapped for Dublin, Ireland.

Mercer Reynolds, who invested with Bush in the Texas Rangers and contributed heavily to his campaign, is the top candidate for the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland.

Reynolds' business partner, William O. DeWitt Jr., who was another major investor in the Texas baseball franchise and owns the St. Louis Cardinals, also is in the running for an ambassadorship. Reynolds and DeWitt helped bail out Bush's struggling Arbusto Energy concern in 1984, and they helped him become rich with the Rangers.

Each of them _ Leach, Farish, Egan, Reynolds and DeWitt _ contributed $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee, records show. All of them except Farish were Bush Pioneers.

A possible candidate for ambassador to the Vatican is Jim Nicholson, a Catholic and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

"What we're seeing is what we always see at the start of a new administration," said Charles Black, a veteran Republican political operative at Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey. "Ambassadorships are greatly prized jobs and a whole lot of people want them. This is Washington, so people are doing what they do here: running lobbying campaigns for the job."

But, alas, not enough embassies exist to go around. The United States staffs about 160 of them around the world, as well as specialized posts like ambassadors to U.N. missions in Geneva and Vienna. Hardship assignments in Latin America, Africa and Asia have few takers among the donor community, and will go largely to the professionals. Plum posts in Western Europe and on some Caribbean islands are mostly set aside for patronage.

Over the grumblings of career diplomats, recent administrations have set aside about a third of the ambassadorial jobs for political appointees, with the rest going to veteran foreign service officers.

Professional diplomats are less than thrilled when campaign givers are rewarded with the rank of ambassador. They have many tales about donors who ended up embarrassing their country rather than advancing its foreign policy goals.

But foreign countries do not always cringe when a political ambassador moves in.

With its ideal climate, expansive beaches and laid-back way of life, Australia is a much sought-after posting for friends of the president, and many have been sent. St. Petersburg developer and Republican fundraiser Mel Sembler, 70, whom President Bush has nominated to be president of the Export-Import Bank, was ambassador to the land down under during the first Bush administration.

But the popularity of the ambassadorship does not bother the Australians.

"Australia has no complaints about the political appointees that have been sent," said Michael Thawley, the Australian ambassador here, who is a career foreign service officer.

"What you want is a quality person who is taken seriously in his own capital."