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CPAC Tips: How to Win Friends and Influence

Panels and parties at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference provided a window into how the pros are raising unlimited, undisclosed money this election cycle.

The big Republican names were all at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., last week: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin.

The three-day conference, known as CPAC and hosted by the American Conservative Union, drew about 11,000 participants and 1,300 journalists, who crammed into the Marriott's ballroom for the big speeches.

While most attention focused on Republican presidential hopefuls and other party luminaries, we opted to take a spin around panels and events devoted to fundraising. They were a window into how money might be raised this election cycle, through new-fangled super PACs and their even more opaque nonprofit sidekicks, as well as through more old-fashioned tactics.

One conference panel -- "What's Up With Campaign Finance?" -- featured some of the lawyers who helped win the recent court decisions, such as Citizens United, that cleared the way for the new, more free-wheeling campaign-finance landscape.

At one point, moderator and lawyer Dan Backer predicted the eventual overhaul of the Federal Election Campaign Act of the 1970s, which he crowed "has been brutalized and made Swiss cheese by the courts, thanks to the folks on this panel."

At another point, panelist Benjamin Barr, a constitutional lawyer, joked about the hoopla over Citizens United and the worry that it would lead to a campaign-finance "apocalypse."

"If there's an apocalypse upon us, I suppose we have the four horsemen of the apocalypse right here," he said, as a few audience members laughed.

Election lawyer Stephen Hoersting, vice-president and co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Competitive Politics, who has recently joined Backer's firm, told the audience about the various ways for grassroots groups to be involved in the upcoming election. If they want to be directly involved in a campaign, they can start a traditional political action committee, which puts strict limits on how much they can raise or donate.

If activists want to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, they can form a super PAC, as long as they don't technically coordinate with a candidate -- and as long as their donors are willing to be disclosed.

But to have both unlimited and undisclosed donations, Hoersting noted, activists can form a so-called 501(c)4, named for the section of the Internal Revenue Service code on social-welfare nonprofits. They must convince the IRS that their organization's primary purpose is social welfare, not politics. And they also must not run afoul of the perpetually paralyzed FEC.

"If you absolutely cannot have any of your donors disclosed, there's still a way to get an organization up off the ground, by say, April, to get money into it and to run ads that will influence…the election, but isn't technically something that the FEC gets its hooks into," Hoersting told the audience of about 75 people. "New organizations that don't want to disclose, there is a way—but you have to run your ads in a certain way."

Also at the panel, Bradley Smith, a former FEC commissioner and the co-founder and chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates eliminating campaign-finance restrictions, told the room that he wasn't particularly worried about foreign money coming into U.S. campaigns. Foreign contributions are illegal in the U.S.

"If the Colombian Chamber of Commerce wants to spend a little bit of money to run some ads saying, ‘Vote for this guy because he supports the Colombian-American free-trade pact,' I'm like, ‘Yeah, that sounds good to me,'" Smith said. "I'm just not frightened that some English citizens are going to run some ads in the country, and I'm not really terribly concerned that the Syrians run their ads saying, ‘We need stronger terrorist organizations,' and that that's going to be just a real winner for anybody. It doesn't worry me."

Hoersting tripped up the audience by playing a kind of super PAC quiz game. In doing so, he was highlighting how similar all the groups sounded. He said he wanted a group—and a name—that actually stood for ideological values.

"Right now we have Winning Our Future," Hoersting reminded the crowd, some of whom were so devoted to the conservative conference, they traveled from across the country. "Whose PAC is Winning Our Future?"

"Mitt Romney," a few suggested. "Gingrich," said others.

"Gingrich, OK," Hoersting confirmed. "Who's Restore Our Future?"

"Romney," a few said, correctly. "Ron Paul," one man announced, wrongly.

"OK," Hoersting said, without naming the winner. (To see which candidate the super PAC supports, just look at the photos on their front page.)

One super PAC was unveiled at the conference, About 40 people crammed into a side room for the kick-off party, which featured a tower of cupcakes and a cash bar that may have been a fundraising tactic. A can of soda ran $5.

American Crossroads, a super PAC that has been referred to as the "shadow" Republican National Committee and hopes to raise $300 million with its nonprofit partner this election cycle, threw a cocktail party for bloggers, where president Steven Law made a joke about the group being a "little super PAC." Here, the bar was open.

The conference, which meandered through the sprawling lobbies and meeting rooms of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, was no place for so-called RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. It was a place where Reagan was invoked like a verb, where there was a party called "Reaganpalooza;" where booths sold pink tank tops with the black outline of a pistol and the phrase "I Don't Dial 911;" where The Great American Tea Party board game asked the question: "Who Says Politics Can't Be Fun?"

Supporters of Gingrich, Romney and Santorum vied for space, along with a man dressed up in a fat suit and a green T-shirt proclaiming, "Big Govt Gary." Instead of the Sierra Club, there was the Safari Club, which advocated for accommodating laws for hunters. There was also the Resourceful Earth, which promises to fight "for the right to develop the natural resources that create jobs and prosperity in America."

Bruce Eberle, wearing a Ronald Reagan lapel button for his panel, "Fundraising Secrets from the Billion $ Man," said many aspects of persuading donors to give big hadn't changed post-Citizen United. Fundraisers still have to summon up the nerve to ask for a bit more than is comfortable.

"Donors actually like to be challenged," he said. "Make them stretch a little bit."

Eberle has raised money for everyone from Reagan to recent Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain. He described how he might ask a prospective contributor for a big check.

"I would like to ask you, 'Would you make a gift of $250,000?" Eberle said to his imaginary donor. "And then, this is one of the very hardest things...You make the ask, and then you shut up."

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