WASHINGTON — If the fashion industry were deciding the presidential election right now, there would be a second President Clinton in the White House.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken a strong lead in campaign contributions from the industry in the early rounds of the 2008 campaign.

Clinton is outdoing Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has received the most funds among Republicans from the industry. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has also gotten substantial financial and anecdotal backing from the fashion world.

Also receiving support are Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has overtaken Romney in recent nationwide polling for second place among Republicans, behind Giuliani, and former Sen. John Edwards (D., N.C.) running third among his party’s candidates, behind Clinton and Obama.

The 2008 presidential election will be the first time since 1952 that no incumbent president or vice president is running. Some of the leading candidates in the 2008 race would, if elected, make history in the Oval Office, as the first woman, first African-American or first Mormon president.

The elections also come at a time of public disenchantment with President Bush and the Iraq war, and on the heels of the Democrats seizing control of Congress last year and seeking to maintain that power and retake the White House.

In the first quarter of the year, statistics based on individual contributions show apparel and accessories specialty retail executives and employees gave $65,150 to presidential candidates, 88 percent of it to Democrats, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. Clothing and accessories manufacturers gave $125,850 to the candidates and Democrats received 73 percent of that total. Department stores, including Wal-Mart, gave $39,570 to the candidates, mostly to Republicans, who got 79 percent of the total. (For a look at some individual campaign contributions, see the box on this page.)

Clinton received the highest contributions from individual donors in the fashion industry, netting $70,250 in the first quarter from the apparel sector, and $38,300 from specialty retailers and a handful of department stores. Among her contributors was J. Crew chairman and chief executive officer Millard Drexler and Oscar de la Renta.

This story first appeared in the May 8, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Obama has received money from Tommy Hilfiger and Leonard A. Schlesinger, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Limited Brands, and Edwards has had contributions from Peter Bragdon, vice president and general counsel of Columbia Sportswear Co., and Chris Chafe, chief of staff at UNITE HERE.

On the Republican side, Romney received the most industry contributions, bringing in $50,200 from such executives as Timothy Boyle, president and ceo of Columbia Sportswear, and John Fleming, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of Wal-Mart’s stores division. He has raised the most overall among Republican candidates with $23.4 million in the first quarter.

Giuliani has garnered support from Wilbur Ross Jr., ceo of W.L. Ross & Co., and Alan H. Cohen, ceo of The Finish Line. McCain got donations from Fred Langhammer, chairman of global affairs at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., and Mackey McDonald, chairman and ceo of VF Corp.

Some executives have hedged their bets. Leonard Lauder, chairman of the Estée Lauder Cos., has written checks to Clinton and Giuliani, and Guess Inc. ceo Paul Marciano made donations to Clinton and Romney.

While the Iraq war will likely dominate the presidential debate nationwide, the industry is also closely watching the candidates’ stance on other issues, ranging from health care and immigration to international trade and taxes. One of the second-tier campaign issues could be where they all stand on Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the U.S., and its many polices that have come under fire.

Clinton, who topped the Democrats by raising $26 million in the first quarter and has an another $10 million left from her Senate campaign, draws support primarily due to her experience in the Senate and in the White House during her husband’s two terms in office.

“The most important thing [about Hillary Clinton] is her experience and the learning curve she’s already had,” said Donna Karan, who made a $4,600 contribution to Clinton.

Karan, a longtime fund-raiser for Clinton, said New York’s junior senator and former President Bill Clinton would be a great team in the White House.

Clinton, who sat on the board of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for six years while her husband was governor of Arkansas, was asked by NBC News anchor Brian Williams during the first nationally televised debate last month whether she thought Wal-Mart was a “good or bad thing” for the country.

Calling it a “mixed blessing,” Clinton said Wal-Mart “gave people a chance to stretch their dollar further” when it first started, but added the retail giant had “raised serious questions” about its health care and safety policies, as well as discrimination in the workplace.

Clinton returned a $5,000 contribution to Wal-Mart in 2005, citing “serious difference” with the company’s current practices. Williams did not ask the other seven Democratic candidates on the panel the question.

Arnold Simon, ceo of Bill Blass Designer License Holdings, who gave to Clinton in the first quarter, said, “She came from Arkansas and she was on the [Wal-Mart] board and she obviously has an opinion. I like hearing that kind of stuff.”

Simon said Clinton was the “best candidate” because she had the most experience in the White House.

“She spent a lot of time overseas dealing with different countries,” said Simon. “I would like to see a Democrat in the White House. I think they’ve been a lot more positive on the economy. Eight years of [Bill] Clinton in the office was a boon for the economy, the stock market and business interest rates.”

Allen Questrom, former chairman and ceo of J.C. Penney Co. Inc., who is supporting Giuliani, said McCain had the “same problems” as the two leading Democratic candidates: He has spent his entire time in the Senate. Questrom said Giuliani had “operating experience,” which sets him apart from the pack.

“If you are a senator or a representative, you debate and vote on issues in Congress,” Questrom said. “You are not in an operating function over a city or a state, which puts you in direct contact with the people every day.”

Questrom also believes Giuliani had a “successful” tenure as mayor of New York and “transformed a dysfunctional city into a functional city,” and cited his efforts to bring the city together after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Ross, who formed International Textile Group through the acquisition of Burlington Industries and Cone Mills, agreed that Giuliani had the best credentials to be president.

The financier, Giuliani’s privatization adviser during his tenure as mayor of New York, said, “He took tens of thousands of people off of the New York City payrolls through a whole variety of privatization and buyouts of peoples’ contracts. Those are things no mayor has ever done before. Very few elected officials have ever made those kinds of changes.”

Ross also said Giuliani took 660,000 people off the welfare rolls in the city and helped them move into the workforce.

“While, obviously, he did an amazing job in terms of 9/11, to me, the day-to-day job he did as mayor is even more impressive in terms of what he will be faced with if he is elected president,” Ross said.

Ross also praised Giuliani for “stimulating economic growth” while mayor and working hands-on with foreign governments, citing his collaboration with the Mexico City police department, which asked for his guidance, as well as consultations with the Chinese about security for the Olympics.