The Associated Press
LOUISVILLE - Nate Morris is defying a generational characteristic.
Most people his age don't vote, much less take part in fund raising. The 23-year-old from Louisville has worked his cell phone, raising more than $50,000 from dozens of donors for President Bush's re-election campaign.
That sum qualifies him as a "Bush Maverick," the lowest rank in an elite group of fund-raisers who helped fill the president's record $228 million campaign treasury for the primary season that ends this week.
Morris, just a year out of college, might be the nation's youngest Maverick. As such, he illustrates a rising political class that stays behind the scenes to eagerly undertake the task so many politicians say they loathe - asking people for money.
They're called "bundlers," independent fund-raisers who wring checks from others on behalf of candidates. It's an unpaid job, but it wins its practitioners access to power and perks: cuff links, golfing vacations, even ambassadorships.
Presidential candidates depend on bundlers for batches of "hard money" - individual gifts of no more than $2,000 each. Bundlers' work became more important after campaign-finance laws banned the use of unlimited "soft money," which had been given to political parties by corporations, unions and the wealthy.
Bush leans on more than 525 people who have earned the titles of Rangers, Pioneers and Mavericks by raising $200,000, $100,000 and $50,000, respectively. That's twice as many Bush bundlers as four years ago.
By its very nature, critics say, bundling is formal recognition by campaigns that certain fund-raisers are their top performers, which creates an elite group in line for special favors.
"Bundlers get the same paybacks and perks we used to associate with the major donors - maybe access to presidential aides, or a visit to the White House or a flight on Air Force One," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the public-interest group Common Cause.
Texans for Public Justice, another watchdog group, maintains that nearly one-fourth of the Bush bundlers from 2000 and this year have received presidential appointments. Of Kentucky's three Bush bundlers in 2000, Elaine Chao was named secretary of labor and W.L. Brown became ambassador to Austria.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell - an ardent defender of private fund raising, who is married to Chao - said politicians naturally turn to the people who aided their campaigns.
"People who work hard are always going to have more influence than people who sit on the sidelines," he said.
Steve Weissman, associate director of the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C., said Morris' success is unusual.
"A lot of bundlers succeed because they can apply business pressure. People want to make them happy," Weissman said. "Frankly, I'm not sure what kind of pressure a 23-year-old can apply."
To succeed, Nate Morris eschews partisan stridency in favor of an ingratiating manner, a talent for cultivating his elders and a thickening Rolodex. Along with the fund raising for Bush, Morris worked for Kentucky Republicans, including McConnell, U.S. Rep. Anne Northup and Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
He hopes to run for office one day, and bundling is a fine way to raise his profile among the players. More immediately, Morris is a passionate advocate for what he calls "investing in your beliefs."
Ask Morris what his cause is, though, and the answer's unclear.
He's conservative. He supports Bush because of "his strong leadership." But he deftly avoids answering questions about specific controversies, such as the Iraq war, tax cuts and gay marriage. He would rather not criticize Democrats.
Morris, who pays his bills at present as a freelance campaign consultant, is weighing law school against a career in real estate development. Or perhaps he'll do both. His long-term plan involves a decade or more of earning money and putting down community roots, at the end of which he'd like to run for office himself.
"It would be a terrific way to give back," he said.
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