Illinois Sen. Barack Obama tapped the Philadelphia Democratic ATM last night, raising an estimated $200,000 for his presidential campaign at a dinner in Center City.
The event was closed to reporters, an edict efficiently enforced by the senator's staff.
"I don't want to put the folks raising money on the spot," Obama said on his way into a ballroom at the Sheraton City Center Hotel, adding that he likes frank question-and-answer sessions with donors.
"It gives people a chance to look under the hood and kick the tires," he said.
The dinner was Obama's first big money event outside his hometown of Chicago since he announced his candidacy Saturday at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., the site of Abraham Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech against slavery. If he wins, Obama will be the nation's first African American president.
The event's hosts were Peter L. Buttenwieser, a Chestnut Hill philanthropist and one of the biggest Democratic donors in the nation, and his wife, Terry Marek.
"Once in a generation somebody comes along with a special set of qualities," Buttenwieser said. "I've been around politics for a long time, and I've never met anybody like Sen. Obama. He has an ability to reach out and bring people together."
With a brilliant smile, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and the ability to electrify a crowd, Obama has drawn comparisons to President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby in the charisma department. He also has a compelling background as the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas.
"You can't pick your time. Your time picks you," said donor Richard Schiffrin of Wynnewood, who met Obama last year in Washington when a presidential bid still seemed improbable. "He has benefited from an enormous wave."
Cultivating powerful fund-raisers like Schiffrin is key to the early stages of a presidential campaign. Not only did Schiffrin, a lawyer, give at least $383,611 to Democratic causes and candidates in the last three elections, but he also can influence other donors.
Another big fish: Philadelphia lawyer Mark Aronchick, who rode with Obama in a car from 30th Street Station to the hotel.
"I love the symbolism of his candidacy," Aronchick said. He had supported former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner until Warner dropped out of the presidential race last year.
Though only in his first term as a senator, Obama, 45, said during his announcement speech that he had enough experience to know Washington was broken. He launched his campaign with a call for a new generation to step up and cure the "smallness of our politics."
Vice President Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were deeply experienced in politics - and they helped launch the Iraq war, said Evan J. Segal, a Pittsburgh lawyer at the fund-raiser.
Obama "connects with people of all ages," Segal said. "He doesn't demonize the other side. . . . I think that speaks to a lot of people in the country who are tired of the gamesmanship of politics."
Segal said Democrats had an embarrassment of riches, with a field that includes New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
None has Obama's "buzz," however, Segal said. He said he believed that Clinton would turn off swing voters wary of another "dynasty" after two Bush presidencies.
Mayor Street and two candidates running in the Democratic primary to succeed him, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and former City Councilman Michael Nutter, dropped by to pay their respects.
"He's special . . . the real thing," Street said, though it's "too early for me" to endorse Obama.
Asked what message he intended to give the crowd, Obama smiled and said: "It's only been four days. I haven't revised my stump [speech] yet. It evolves, but not that fast."