WASHINGTON — As nine Democrats vie for their party’s nomination to run against President Bush in 2004, some of the candidates are gaining traction in the fashion industry.

While it’s still early in the primary season, with seven months to go before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, some patterns are starting to emerge. The economy is likely to be a rallying call for the Democrats, along with foreign policy, as the candidates try to convince Democratic voters they are the best candidates and also lure disillusioned Republicans to their camp.

Among those in the industry who have gotten into the campaign-giving swing so far are Chanel Inc.’s chief executive officer Arie Kopelman, Estée Lauder Cos.’ William Lauder, former Gap Inc. director Robert Fisher, L.L. Bean chairman Leon Gorman, The Men’s Warehouse ceo George Zimmer, catalog queen Lillian Vernon, Chico’s FAS Inc. president and chief operating officer Scott Edmunds, and Accessory Network Group ceo Abraham Chehebar .

Kopelman, a registered Republican, said he’s solidly behind Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to lead the nation.

“He clearly seems to have a greater grasp of foreign policy than anybody else. I think he understands the need for diplomacy, as opposed to just the way the country has been going it alone,” said Kopelman, who has given Kerry a $2,000 primary campaign contribution, the maximum allowed under federal law. Kopelman’s wife, Corinne, also wrote Kerry a $2,000 check, according to Federal Election Commission records reflecting contributions through March 31.

Kopelman also singled out the four-term senator and decorated Vietnam veteran for having a “depth of knowledge on the economic front” that he doesn’t see in the competition. Kopelman said his support isn’t tied to his long friendship with Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Kopelman is the godfather of one of Heinz-Kerry’s sons by her late husband, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. John Heinz III of the Heinz food dynasty, and she is Kopelman’s daughter’s godmother.

As for President Bush, Kopelman declined to discuss the current White House occupant or whether he voted for him.

“I was not actively supporting George Bush,” is how Kopelman characterized the President’s 2000 White House bid, an unprecedented contest with Democrat Al Gore. “I’ve often thought I should become an independent. I support who I think is the strongest candidate.”So far, Kerry is second to North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the amount of campaign cash raised through March. Edwards’ coffers are stocked with $7.4 million and Kerry has $7 million, with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt in third place with almost $6 million.

Gore’s 2000 running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is fourth with a campaign war chest of $3 million, followed by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean with $2.6 million and Florida Sen. Bob Graham at $1.1 million. The other three Democratic contenders, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich; Carol Moseley Braun, former Illinois senator and ambassador to New Zealand, and activist Al Sharpton have less than $200,000 and are all considered long shots.

Also giving to Kerry from the fashion industry is Robert Fisher, who is the son of Gap chairman Donald Fisher, who gave $2,000, as did William Lauder, chief operating officer of Estée Lauder. L.L. Bean’s Gorman gave Kerry $500, as did Zimmer of Men’s Warehouse.

For his part, Lauder stopped short of declaring his support for any candidate before the first state test, the Iowa Caucus in January, leading to the July 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. Lauder also has given $500 to Edwards.

“I have a relationship with several of the candidates and I’m supportive of their campaigns,” Lauder said in a statement. “It is still too early to say how the Democratic primary will evolve, but I enjoy politics and being engaged in the process.”

As reported, Charles Nolan left his top design job at Anne Klein to volunteer for Dean’s campaign, to which Nolan has given $2,000. Nolan, whose partner, Andrew Tobias, is the Democratic National Committee treasurer, recently spurred on support for Dean at a fund-raiser in New York.

“As I gear up toward the fall, I hope to get the fashion industry involved,” said Nolan, who dressed Tipper Gore during her husband’s battle with Bush in 2000. “Higher-profile people who are picking their candidate early don’t know [Dean].

“Howard Dean is a great manager, coming into the state of Vermont with a deficit and leaving it with a surplus. He lowered income taxes twice. His whole story is one of service. He could have very easily chosen a very different life,” said Nolan, referring to Dean’s privileged upbringing in New York and his decision to attend medical school and become a rural Vermont physician instead of pursuing a Wall Street career.So far, Dean has been jockeying with Kerry for the top spot in New Hampshire voters’ minds leading up to the state’s primary in January, the second proving ground for candidates after the Iowa caucuses. In Iowa, Kerry and Gephardt — from neighboring Missouri with organized labor backing and a familiar face from previous White House runs —are considered front-runners.

Lillian Vernon, whose shareholders this week approved the $60 million sale of her gift, housewares and apparel catalogue, has given $2,000 to Edwards. Vernon’s spokesman is her son, David Hochberg, who said she hasn’t decided which Democrat to back, but noted she plans to attend a Kerry fund-raiser soon and “knows Lieberman already.”

“She’s certainly a Democrat and is going to vote for whomever the Democratic nominee is,” Hochberg said.

Edmunds of Chico’s, based in Fort Myers, Fla., said he’s always voted a straight GOP ticket, but is switching allegiances and backing Graham, the U.S. senator from Florida who’s also a former governor of the state.

Edmunds said the U.S.’s inability so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — the Bush administration’s main reason given for waging war there — was pivotal in his backing of Graham. The candidate, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was among the first Democrats in the presidential field to argue that Bush misled Americans and Congress about the imminent danger Iraq posed to the U.S.

Edmunds has given $2,000 to Graham and will be a host of a fund-raiser today for the candidate in Fort Myers’ historic Heitman House.

“I’m not sure that in this whole discussion on weapons of mass destruction, there wasn’t a spin put on it to get us into the war on Iraq,” Edmunds said. Of Graham, who also is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, he said: “Being a southern conservative Democrat, I think he has the experience [on the intelligence committee] and being involved on the finance end of things in D.C., he has the experience to lead the country.”

Still weighing the Democratic candidates, but not ready to write off President Bush, is Chehebar of Accessory Network, a leading New York-based distributor of fashion accessories. So far, Gephardt has captured Chehebar’s interest. The executive has given $2,000 to the Missourian, as has his wife, Barbara. A Chehebar son and first cousin also have given the candidate $1,000 each. Another fashion industry executive, ceo Josephine Chaus of Chaus Inc., also has given Gephardt $2,000.Gephardt, for years the Democratic leader in the House until he gave up the post to run for President, was introduced to Chehebar by Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic party. While other candidates also advocate sovereign Israeli and Palestinian states, Chehebar, who emigrated from Israel in 1966, said he is drawn to Gephardt’s interest in the cause. Gephardt also seems to be a champion of small businesses, Chehebar said.

Chehebar, who voted for Gore in 2000, said, “I happen to think Bush is doing a great job and I like his foreign policy agenda, and I do believe he is taking the right steps to improve the economy. There are still two years to see how the Bush initiatives will develop. If you ask me who I’m going to vote for, I’m not committed yet.”

Charles Cook, a campaign forecaster whose political compass is widely watched in Washington, said if a contest were held today among Democrats, Kerry and then Gephardt would be likely victors. However, Cook cautions, political landscapes can quickly shift and he notes how Dean is nipping at Kerry’s candidacy, as top-funded Edwards, as well as Lieberman and Graham, maneuver into position for the make-or-break Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

Whichever candidate is picked to head the Democratic slate, it will be the state of the economy — whether it worsens, stays sluggish or rebounds — that will be the deciding factor in the contest with Bush, Cook said.

“If the economy gets better, and even if the Democrats could nominate the reincarnation of FDR or John Kennedy, they could still lose,” Cook said. “If the economy stays where it is, [Bush] could win with 52 percent, and if the economy slides much at all, [Bush] has got a huge problem.”

Democratic campaign war chests are a fraction of where they’re expected to climb, even under recently enacted federal limits on giving. But their fund-raising should pale in comparison to Bush’s. This summer alone, the President is expected to raise as much as $200 million, twice as much as he spent in the 2000 Republican primary. Monday night in Manhattan, Bush raised $4 million as part of a multicity swing. The first peek at Bush’s list of campaign contributors won’t be available until next month.

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