WASHINGTON — Fashion and retail industry executives continue to place early money in campaign coffers for the 2004 presidential race, with designers Oscar de la Renta and Kenneth Cole, Gap Inc. chairman Donald Fisher and Estée Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder among those writing checks.

At this stage, 15 months before the general election, the slate of nine Democratic candidates shows signs of winnowing, with a party nominee expected to become apparent by early next year after the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses.

Meanwhile, incumbent Republican President Bush is revving up his reelection finance machine, while deflecting Democratic criticism about the sputtering economy, persistent unemployment, a record federal deficit, the state of affairs in U.S.-occupied Iraq and other volatile issues confronting his presidency.

Recent Federal Election Commission records for the first quarter gave the first glimpse into Bush’s fund-raising juggernaut. According to FEC filings, Bush thus far has reported $34.5 million raised, but he is expected to raise a record $200 million — and there are several fashion names already helping to reach that goal.

Robert E. Gray, chairman of St. John Knits, has written a check to Bush’s campaign for $500, an amount the executive called “modest” but which he said signals his support for the administration’s laissez-faire approach to government regulations.

However, Gray noted he thought the President’s two rounds of tax cuts for individuals, amounting to $1.7 trillion and designed to stimulate the slack economy, was “somewhat a futile gesture aimed at the wrong areas.” Gray said the cuts would have realized more economic benefit if they were given to businesses instead. Plans for a third set of tax cuts, focused on businesses, have recently been scrapped by the White House.

“I’m not into politics heavily at all,” said Gray, in a phone interview from St. John’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters. “I’ve been a backer of Bush and I still am. I’m basically a Republican and I tend to back the Republican candidates.”

Also lining up behind Bush’s reelection is longtime GOP benefactor Donald Fisher, chairman of the Gap. Fisher, as well as his wife, Doris, a member of the Gap’s board, have each given $2,000 to Bush’s unopposed primary race, the maximum allowed for a primary.This election, Fisher won’t be able to give the Republican Party soft money, as he did between 1998 and 2002 in checks amounting to $410,700. The use of soft money, used to promote political parties, not candidates, which was seen as a loophole in otherwise strict federal campaign finance limits, is no longer allowed.

Other fashion industry financial backers of Bush’s reelection thus far, along with the amount they’ve contributed, include:

  • Karen Hoguet, Federated Department Stores Inc.’s chief financial officer, $1,000.

  • Kosta Kartsotis, Fossil Inc. president and chief executive officer, $2,000.

  • New Balance chairman and ceo James Davis, $2,000.

  • Steven Erlbaum, David’s Bridal chairman, $1,000.

  • Jockey International president Edward Emma, $250.

In the Democratic race for their party’s nomination to run against Bush, three candidates appear to be emerging as leaders among the crowd of nine contenders. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and physician and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are gaining the most traction in polls taken in early primary states.

Among fashion and retail industry contributions in the second quarter to Democratic contenders for the nation’s top political spot include de la Renta, who’s written a $1,000 check to Gephardt and designer Diane Von Furstenberg, who’s given $2,000 to the candidate.

Kerry contributors from the industry during the period from March through June include Revlon chairman Jack Stahl, Price-Costco chairman Jeffrey Brotman and Val d’Or apparel company president Martin Granoff, each of whom gave $2,000.

Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder Cos., wrote a $1,000 check to Dean’s campaign. Lauder, a prolific contributor to political campaigns from both parties, also gave $2,000 to Gephardt’s effort and $1,000 to Kerry’s campaign. Lauder’s wife, Evelyn, senior corporate vice president at Estée Lauder, gave Gephardt’s campaign $1,000, and the company’s senior vice president for global communications, Sally Susman, gave $1,000 to Kerry.

Samuel Schwab, chairman of Ralph Lauren children’s wear maker S. Schwab Co., was another Gephardt supporter. He gave $1,000.Three industry executives each gave $1,000 to Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s bid for the Democratic nomination. They are designer Kenneth Cole, Burlington Coat Factory president and ceo Monroe Milstein and Price Costco cfo Richard Galanti.

Two executives each gave $500 to Florida Sen. Bob Graham’s campaign. They were Perry Ellis International chairman and ceo George Feldenkreis and Robert M. Beall 2d, chairman and ceo of the 375-unit Bradenton, Fla.-based department store chain Bealls.

With such a wide field of Democrats vying for their party’s nomination, none have yet captured a national audience, as campaigning is still in its early stages.

“The Democrats are having a very difficult time getting their messages out because there are so many of them. It will be a very different picture once the primaries and caucuses are over and there’s a nominee,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations with the National Retail Federation. “We are 15 months out to the general election and many things can happen between now and then. I’m not gong to predict the outcome of the election, other than to say the President has a very efficient reelection apparatus around him. He is going to raise record sums of money and enjoy a significant fund-raising advantage over his competitor.”

Incumbents often have the advantage of being able to raise money from a broad swath of party supporters early in a campaign, while contributors to the challenging party support multiple candidates.

One edge against Bush that Democrats can count on is backing from organized labor. So far, Gephardt, with his long-standing opposition to free-trade agreements because their labor standards aren’t tough enough, has garnered endorsement from the 1.8 million-member Teamsters union, along with some smaller building unions. Gephardt, as president, would also pursue creating a universal health care system, an issue with much labor support.

However, most unions — including the 8.8 million-strong AFL-CIO labor convention, to which the apparel union UNITE belongs — have withheld backing a candidate.

“We’re clearly focused on picking a candidate who can defeat Bush,” said Bruce Raynor, president of the apparel union UNITE, explaining the lack of an early endorsement by the AFL-CIO.Fred P. Hochberg, a Kerry campaign volunteer and former chief operating officer at Lillian Vernon, cites his candidate’s 90 percent approval rating from the AFL-CIO as a strong credential for labor backing. However, Kerry has voted in favor of various trade agreements, including NAFTA, which labor opposed. Hochberg contended that doesn’t disqualify Kerry him from union endorsement.

“He obviously wants to balance trade with environment and labor protections,” said Hochberg, who in the Clinton administration was a deputy and then acting administrator of the Small Business Administration.

Another former Clinton administration official, Maria Echaveste, who now is a senior political adviser for Dean’s campaign, said the large field of Democrats running illustrates a broad discontent for Bush’s handling of matters like the economy and terrorism. Echaveste is probably best known among retailers for her antisweatshop campaigns as Wage and Hour Administrator in the Labor Department. Later, she became Clinton’s deputy chief of staff.

Among the reasons Echaveste is backing Dean are his record on balancing Vermont’s budget, his call to roll back Bush’s tax cuts and his criticism of the President’s antiterrorism efforts, including the war in Iraq. Echaveste was one of the early backers of Clinton’s bid in 1991 for the Democratic nomination, when he was still considered a long shot for the presidency.

“I’d really rather have a good primary fight,” she said, “because we’ll end up with a good candidate.”

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