Emanuel takes on new role as Democrats look to close fundraising gap

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Senior Democrats put aside any remaining qualms about jumping into the "super-PAC" era, persuading Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to give up his leadership role in President Barack Obama's re-election campaign and focus instead on raising money for outside groups seeking to help the White House.

With fewer than nine weeks before the election and with conservative groups outspending their pro-Democratic counterparts, Democrats disclosed Wednesday that Mr. Emanuel would try to help them close the fundraising gap, and said congressional leaders would step up their efforts as well.

Mr. Emanuel, who had served in an honorary position as co-chairman of Mr. Obama's campaign, intends to help funnel donations to Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC founded by two former Obama aides that is more than $60 million short of its goal for this election.

The move thrusts Mr. Emanuel into the kind of role long played by Republican strategist Karl Rove, who advises and raises money for a network of GOP-leaning outside groups that intend to spend as much as $500 million in the campaign. Mr. Emanuel will also raise money for two super-PACs that support Democratic congressional campaigns, beginning with a fundraiser Monday in Chicago for one of the groups, House Majority PAC.

"I just find all the special-interest money lined up on the other side, tilting the scales in a way that I don't want to see. So if I can help, I'm going to help," Mr. Emanuel said in an interview.

"The president's got a great field operation; they've got a great campaign," he added. "But in the last 61 days, where can I be most helpful? Co-chair of the campaign? Or Priorities?"

Mr. Emanuel said he would no longer communicate with the campaign on strategy; he will also be barred from sharing knowledge of the campaign's plans with Priorities USA or other outside groups.

As the Democrats' elite donors gathered this week for the party's convention, senior officials and Obama "bundlers," charged with raising money, were fanning out to receptions and happy hours for the party's super-PACs, a full embrace of no-limits fundraising.

Mr. Emanuel joined the party's congressional leaders Wednesday morning at a private home in the Charlotte suburbs, an event hosted by hedge-fund billionaire James Simons, who is among a small handful of Democratic donors who have made a seven-figure contribution to a super-PAC this year.

About 75 donors and potential donors, including investor Orin Kramer and hotel developer George Tsunis, heard Mr. Emanuel exhort them to dig deep during the campaign's final two months. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., were also at the event, according to attendees.

There is deep concern among Democrats about the vast fundraising gulf between Democratic and Republican outside groups, as well as GOP nominee Mitt Romney's apparent ease in matching Mr. Obama's fundraising. Mr. Romney is expected to say he raised $100 million in August, far more than Mr. Obama and the Democrats are likely to report.

Democratic strategists said the help by Mr. Emanuel, a former Obama chief of staff and an aggressive fundraiser with close ties to the Obama and Clinton donor networks, could be pivotal -- and not merely as a signal to Democratic donors. The Washington Post first reported news of his role switch.

"I think that Rahm's involvement brings energy and critical mass to an effort that obviously badly needed it," said former Clinton aide Michael Feldman. "He will reach people and, by sheer force of will, persuade people to get involved on a level they might not have otherwise" done.

"At the Democratic convention, you can get a lot of work done just walking down the street," Priorities USA official Bill Burton said.

His group raised $10 million in August, by far its best month. He and others raising money for the group -- including Clinton administration veterans Harold Ickes and Paul Begala and a growing number of top Obama bundlers -- have tried to convince donors that they need not match groups such as Mr. Rove's Crossroads dollar for dollar to be effective.

"As an investor, I don't want to give to the guys blowing their money all over the airwaves, oversaturating the market," said Florida real estate developer Christopher G. Korge, who is helping to raise money for both the Obama campaign and Priorities USA. "I want to invest in the guys who are being strategic. I think Priorities is being very strategic in how they are using their money. They have to be."

Unlike Crossroads, whose advertising barrages helped Republicans take House control in 2010, and Restore Our Future, which claims credit for helping Mr. Romney to win the GOP nomination, the Democratic groups have a less obvious record of success. None existed until last year, in part because of initial reluctance from Mr. Obama, who has publicly criticized outside groups and the 2010 Supreme Court decision that helped pave the way for the super-PACs.

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