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In Democratic presidential race, Florida’s big money up for grabs

While candidates vie for votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states, the struggle in Florida six months from the primary election is about big money.

Clad in a navy suit and red tie — the white shirt he’d sweated through earlier in the day replaced by a crisp, blue one — Joe Biden looked into an exclusive audience in a converted Art Deco furniture showroom in Miami and saw old friends and new money.

A few hours earlier, the former vice president was courting voters on the sweltering terrace of a Little Havana bar during his first public campaign appearance in South Florida. Now, in Miami’s luxe Design District, the Democratic presidential front-runner was wooing donors — and hoping that they, in turn, would woo others, propelling him all the way to the White House.

Biden thanked his hosts, cracked a few jokes and then riffed bleakly on guns, dictators and taxes before ending with a surge of optimism.

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“When we’re together,” he said, as trial lawyers, developers and politicians sipped cocktails and noshed on parmesan-crusted yucca balls, “there’s not a damn thing we cannot do.”

While candidates vie for votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states, the struggle in Florida six months from the primary election is about big money. To help pay for efforts in early states and build reserves for the long campaign to come, Biden and other top presidential contenders pursue fundraisers whose professional and personal networks give them the clout to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their candidate of choice.

“Florida isn’t ready to be campaigned for yet. But it’s a very rich donor state,” John Morgan, a wealthy trial lawyer who raised $1.7 million for Biden at his home in May, told the Miami Herald. “Florida has a lot of money to be tapped into.”

Who gets the money — and when — is a key factor as campaigns assemble campaign teams from Nevada to New Hampshire.

Florida, with a critical mass of wealthy, liberal donors, is among the most prolific states in terms of political giving to Democratic candidates. The state has also been lucrative for Republicans, with President Donald Trump’s June stop at his Doral resort bringing in $4 million, according to The New York Times.

And even though there’s currently a sense among some political veterans like former Florida Democratic Party chairwoman and party fundraiser Allison Tant that fundraising has been “unusually quiet,” the money has been pouring in this year.

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Florida donors gave $5 million to Democratic presidential candidates in amounts larger than $200 from January through the end of July. That’s an increase of about 65% from the same period in 2015. And that’s only a fraction of what Florida donors will contribute to Democratic candidates by Election Day.

With millions of dollars yet untapped, the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are competing to win over fence-sitting fundraisers and steal away those who have backed weaker candidates. Biden, U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have all hired fundraisers in Florida, but they’re also wooing rainmakers who’ve built names raising six- and even seven-figure sums for future presidents.

Biden raised more than $2 million in Florida last quarter, by far the most of any Democratic presidential candidate. But he is far from locking down the state, where more than a half dozen fundraisers interviewed by the Miami Herald said they’re not yet ready to commit to Biden, or anyone else.

“I want to see Joe go through the gauntlet of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina,” Alex Sink, a 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said in an interview last week. “I think we have these early primaries for a reason and we’re going to learn a lot more.”

Morgan, the attorney who hosted Biden at his home outside Orlando, said Biden would have raised more money by now were it not for a daily drumbeat of critical press reports about Biden’s gaffes and age. Still, Morgan said donor interest in Biden was high when he came to Central Florida in May since the former vice president had just launched his campaign and hadn’t yet visited the area as a candidate.

Morgan also credited the success of the fundraiser to his own business connections, a “tremendous email list” bolstered by the roughly 500 attorneys in his massive law firm — and a little horse trading.

“You gotta follow up with a phone call. I say ‘This is important to me.’ Somebody calls me the next day and says ‘Hey, this is important to me,’ ” Morgan said, of the negotiating that goes on behind the scenes. “It’s harder than it sounds. It takes time.”

Fundraisers like Morgan remain a crucial cog in presidential campaign machinery — despite the rise of small-dollar online donations that has diminished their importance. Often referred to as bundlers for their ability to gather and deliver dozens of checks worth up to the $2,800 federal contribution limit, they still reliably raise significant sums without cost. And their networks remain valuable as Democrats swear off the Super PACs capable of receiving unlimited sums from donors.

Biden — whose financial and polling leads in Florida are significant — has other dedicated and prolific fundraisers on his side. Miami attorney Joe Falk is a staunch Biden supporter, as is Parkland attorney Andrew Weinstein, a former Florida Democratic Party finance chairman. Both attended Sunday’s fundraiser, as did Michael Adler, a developer and longtime friend of Biden’s who raised around $300,000 for the candidate in May at a condominium clubhouse overlooking the Coral Gables Waterway.

It was Adler who contacted Design District developer Craig Robins about hosting Biden Sunday in the Moore Building, with its three-story, tendon-like art installation Robins commissioned the late starchitect Zaha Hadid to design in 2005.

“I think I can conquer the world with the Adler clan,” Biden said, during a half-hour speech Sunday that the campaign — which has regularly opened portions of fundraisers to the press — invited the Miami Herald to cover on behalf of the national press.

Biden, though, hasn’t been able to lock down every influential donor in the state.

Alex Heckler, among the dozens of Floridians named as a “Hillblazer” in 2016 after raising at least $100,000 for Hillary Clinton, has raised money for Harris. Buttigieg has support from Freddy Balsera, a Miami-based public relations executive who crafted President Barack Obama’s Hispanic media campaign in 2008. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has the support of Tampa attorney Justin Day, who has received calls from multiple campaigns to let him know “the water is warm” should he want to jump ship.

Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who agreed early on to support Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, co-hosted Sunday’s fundraiser but said beforehand that he’s not committed to any candidate. Miami attorney Ira Leesfield, also a prominent fundraiser, said he’s giving money to the Democratic National Committee but not yet to specific candidates.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson invited Leesfield to Biden’s Sunday fundraiser, but Leesfield said in an interview last week that he expected to be in New York helping World Central Kitchen to raise money for relief efforts in the Bahamas.

“I know there are phone calls happening because I’m one of the people calling from time to time,” Steve Schale, a Tallahassee-based political strategist supporting Biden, said of recruitment efforts. “There are a number of people who probably want to throw their phones in the ocean right now,” he joked.

Sink, the former Florida chief financial officer who lost the Florida governor’s race to Rick Scott in 2010, said she’s wary of jumping too early onto a campaign after seeing the party prematurely crown nominees in the past. She feels that way even though Biden called her in 2012 on the day of the funeral for her husband, Bill McBride, and held fundraisers for her when she ran for Congress in 2014.

“I’m watching for a candidate who I believe has the staying power and the stamina and the communications ability to go up against Donald Trump and the Republican machine,” she said.

Biden, however, has done well for himself in Florida based around that very idea: that he’s the best candidate in a massive field to take on Trump. State Sen. Janet Cruz — whose daughter, Ana Cruz, is a political operative in Florida and participates on Biden conference calls — said that’s why she’s supporting Biden and hosting his wife, Jill Biden, for a fundraiser this weekend in Tampa.

“He’s got the best shot at beating Trump and I think most Democrats across the state want just whoever is the strongest candidate,” said Nancy Soderberg, a former member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council who’s offered to help set up an event for Biden in Northeast Florida with other supporters.

There are signs that presidential campaigns are beginning to look beyond fundraising in Florida.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has hired a state political director, and several Biden fundraisers who attended his campaign stop in Little Havana Sunday told the Miami Herald they’ve encouraged the Biden campaign to begin hiring staff for field operations in the state. For now, Biden and other candidates are mostly relying on a growing list of surrogates and supporters to carry their campaigns in the state.

But getting campaign cash out of Florida remains key for candidates. And as the sleepy summer months wane — a time when donors are more likely to host or attend fundraisers at summer homes in Aspen or the Hamptons than hold an event in a hurricane zone — the candidates are back in the state. Klobuchar visited Saturday. And following a visit to Tampa by his husband, Chasten, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign says he’s coming back “soon.”

“The candidates are told there’s nobody with financial resources in Florida from June through September, so don’t bother,” said Leesfield. “Now there’s a big push.”

McClatchy DC reporter Ben Wieder contributed to this report.