At McCain’s Convention, Big Money Still Talks

ST. PAUL — Of all the whales at the Republican National Convention this week, Robert Wood Johnson IV, the billionaire heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and owner of the New York Jets, may be the biggest.

He wore a chest full of credentials around all week, providing access to many of the convention’s most exclusive sanctums. He shared a skybox at the Xcel Energy Center with Rick Davis, the manager of Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. More significantly, he was the only top fund-raiser with his name emblazoned on his own hospitality suite, the “Woody Johnson Minneapolis-St. Paul 2008 Host Committee Private Lounge.”

Mr. Johnson’s exalted status here shows that for all of Mr. McCain’s efforts to purge the influence of money in politics, the big donors still wielded sizable influence over this convention, getting singular access to the campaign and shaping the endless chain of parties and events outside the convention hall.

The power brokers from the McCain campaign lavished Mr. Johnson and others like him with attention here — his itinerary was an endless parade of posh receptions for V.I.P. donors. Before the convention ramped up Tuesday evening, Mr. Johnson, 61, was among a cluster of McCain campaign officials and supporters hovering outside a suite guarded by an aide. As Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and senior McCain adviser, chatted in one small circle, Mr. Johnson, 61, was at the center of another next to her, before he disappeared inside the suite with Mr. Davis.

Mr. Johnson has long been a player in Republican politics — he was a Bush Ranger in 2000 and 2004, raising more than $200,000 in each election. He has personally given more than $1 million to Republican candidates and committees over the years.

But this year, he emerged as perhaps the party’s most coveted donor. In May, after turning his office into a war room for more than a month and making sometimes 50 calls a day, he orchestrated a fund-raiser in New York City that brought in $7 million in a single evening for Mr. McCain, by far the largest amount collected up to that point by a campaign that had been struggling to raise money.

More recently, Mr. Johnson rode to the rescue of the Minneapolis-St. Paul convention host committee, helping it close a more than $10 million budget shortfall in a matter of weeks by writing a sizable check himself, getting his mother, who hails from Minneapolis, to do so as well, but also soliciting a slew of large contributions from his circle of wealthy friends.

“What we needed was somebody from the outside who through the Republican infrastructure had connections that we don’t necessarily have here in Minnesota,” said Jeff Larson, chief executive of the convention’s host committee.

Campaign finance watchdogs have long criticized how individuals and corporations, many with interests in Washington, can make unlimited donations to political conventions, in contrast to the caps on contributions to campaigns and parties, as a back-door way to curry favor with the parties and their candidates. But Mr. Johnson said he believes conventions are important and sees no reason to stanch the amount of private money flowing into them.

“I’m not a real believer in limits,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson rarely speaks at length with reporters. But in a series of conversations, he said that he is motivated by a belief in Senator John McCain and the Democratic process.

“I only take on things I really believe in,” Mr. Johnson said.

But Mr. Johnson also clearly has his own agenda. Staffers on Capitol Hill credit him with playing a pivotal role in 2002 in pushing members of Congress, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, to allocate $750 million over five years for juvenile diabetes research. Mr. Johnson’s oldest daughter, Casey, has Type 1 diabetes and he has given millions to the search for a cure.

“We sat down and talked a couple times,” said Mr. Hastert, who added that the pair bonded over football. “He made a very good case that by investing U.S. dollars, we could actually save money.”

Mr. Johnson, who has another daughter with the autoimmune disease lupus and raised millions for that cause, also met with President Bush in the White House to push for embryonic stem-cell research, a meeting Mr. Johnson believes might have helped Bush to compromise in his policy and still allow federal financing for research on existing stem-cell lines.

As owner of the Jets and in search of a new stadium for his team over the last several years, Mr. Johnson’s political clout has certainly not hurt him, even if his quest to build a stadium in Manhattan ultimately fell short. He is candid about the need to make contributions to New York and New Jersey Democrats as well, given his business interests in the region.

The Jets and the Giants are building a new $800 million stadium together in New Jersey, but some critics have questioned the wisdom of the state taking on more than $100 million in debt as part of the deal.

Like other major donors, Mr. Johnson has traveled with Mr. McCain on the campaign trail. Mr. McCain also calls him on occasion to thank him. But Mr. Johnson downplays the access he has, saying he is no different from anyone else.

“You can call the senator too,” Mr. Johnson said.

At a cocktail reception on Tuesday put on by the Minnesota Vikings, Mr. Johnson hobnobbed with Mr. Hastert, who now works for a lobbying firm, and Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah.

On Wednesday night, inside the convention hall, Mr. Johnson’s suite drew such Republican luminaries as former Senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee; Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser; and former Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York.

Mr. Johnson’s easygoing manner makes him popular among his fellow bundlers. On a hunting trip in Texas for Bush Rangers, he once brought with him an elephant gun he had used to hunt game in Africa and challenged others to see if they could handle its powerful recoil. These days, many ask him about his new quarterback, Brett Favre. What makes Mr. Johnson so effective as a fund-raiser, according to those around him, is his willingness to engage in the hard slog of making hundreds of calls.

“To raise seven figures the way Woody has done for an event and to get other folks to do it, you have to have a lot of conversations,” said Larry Bathgate, a top McCain fund-raiser who has known Mr. Johnson for two decades.

When Mr. Johnson was putting together his New York event in the spring, he removed the paintings from his office wall and taped up more than a hundred pieces of paper with the names of people he was hoping to convince to raise $100,000 each, or failing that, $25,000, marking his progress after each call.

The list included a Who’s Who of wealth and power in New York, from Donald Trump, a close personal friend, to David H. Koch, the billionaire co-owner of Koch Industries, the oil and gas conglomerate.

When Mr. Johnson’s staff was considering whom to call, someone suggested Charles F. Dolan, the chairman of Cablevision, and Mr. Johnson’s bitter foe in the stadium fight. Mr. Johnson quickly agreed and eventually secured what he described as a generous commitment.

“Anything for John McCain,” Mr. Johnson said.

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