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At party conventions, the party is where it's at
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After the John Edwards speech at the convention on Wednesday, delegates headed to the Rock the Vote party. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Wednesday night's nomination for president of Sen. John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention comes as no surprise. But Kerry's chances in November may depend as much on what goes on outside the Fleet Center as what happens inside. Throughout the day and into the night, elected officials, interest groups, and activists are engaged in the time-honored arts of political life: networking, lobbying, and raising money.

Boston, MA. — If television viewership of the national conventions has declined in recent elections -- and it has -- perhaps it's because the cameras aren't focused where the real excitement is.

Washington, DC, attorney Peter Gillon says that after convention-goers put in a solid day's work they deserve a chance to let off some steam.

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"It's been an endless parade of parties here which have been starting somewhere around 11 o'clock at night and have been going until about three in the morning, at which point we're going back to the hotel only to have the fire alarm to go off in the middle of the night," Gillon said.

Gillon is at an event sponsored by Rock the Vote and the Lifetime Television Network to highlight the "Every Woman Counts" campaign. It's invitation-only, but in this case free. Not so with all events.

On Wednesday night the arts and entertainment group the Creative Coalition sponsored a benefit, featuring, among others, Ben Affleck and William Baldwin. Cost: $1,000 per ticket. Attendance: Sold out.

Delegate Sylvia Kaplan of Minneapolis says there's a certain buzz about who gets in where.

"Every time you turn around there are various businesses that are hosting special events. And everybody's looking around to see what they can get tickets for. It's a scramble," she says.

Sylvia and husband, Sam Kaplan, are major contributors to Democratic causes and candidates. Since 2000, they've personally given more than $60,000. That level of support opens the door to the A-list events, where donors can rub shoulders with top Democratic officials and officeholders, including national committee chair Terry McAuliffe, former president Bill Clinton, and newly-minted nominee John Kerry.

Sam Kaplan says it's no secret that modern political campaigns require large sums of money.

"We know that the people who support George Bush -- or at least most of them -- feel it intensely and feel it sincerely. And we feel it just as strongly. And we're not going to go unarmed this time into a race," Kaplan said.

This year's Democratic convention has also provided fertile ground for candidates further down the ballot. Earlier this week the Boston law office of Minnesota Democrat Mike Ciresi held a fund-raiser for DFLers hoping to capture control of the state House of Representatives.

Delegate and Representative Nora Slawik of Maplewood wouldn't say how much the event -- headlined by humorist Garrison Keillor -- took in. But she declared it a success.

"What's happening here on the convention floor is cheerleading. But what happens outside the convention center is the serious business of politics. And turning the country around this fall, turning around our state this fall, raising the money, talking to people about knocking on doors, and motivating people. So, for us, this is an extraordinary opportunity to do that on a national basis," according to Slawik.

Interest groups are also hosting parties and receptions that offer a chance for them to lobby for their positions. Minnesota delegate Julie Blaha found herself at the reproductive rights group Planned Parenthood's "Sex, Politics, and Cocktails" mixer.

"And it's a way for Planned Parenthood to connect with delegates and another chance for them talk about choice and how important that is in this election. So that's what they get out of it. I have a chance to have a good time, take a break from the convention," she said.

The parties certainly don't violate any campaign finance rules. And Steve Weissman says similar events are held throughout the year in Washington -- although usually on a smaller scale. But Weissman, a researcher at the Washington-based Campaign Finance Institute, says a more disturbing trend is emerging. More and more, corporations and wealthy contributors are paying for the costs of the conventions themselves.

The sponsors of the Democratic convention includes a who's who of the country's major insurance, pharmaceutical, and financial companies. Weissman says that creates at least a perception that these companies are attempting to influence public policy with their gifts.

"The convention is, after all, the first big campaign ad of the general election. Both parties look to it to give a huge momentum to their candidates going into the campaign," Weissman said.

Many of the same companies will perform a similar service next month when the Republicans descend on New York.

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