Money already paving the way to 2016 White House

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Washington (AFP) - A year remains before party primaries for the US presidential election -- and 21 months until the vote itself -- but potential candidates are already cranking on a core task: raising cash.

Jeb Bush, for example, has yet to lay out his vision for America. That hasn't stopped executives, consultants and wealthy donors from seeking access to the would-be candidate at closed-door meetings and swish receptions.

US media reports reveal how Bush, the likely Republican frontrunner, may dominate potential rivals in the money stakes.

Politico reported that the son and brother of two presidents this week travelled to New York, where admissions to a Bush event hosted by private equity mogul Henry Kravis sold for a staggering $100,000 apiece.

- The billionaires' influence -

For America's billionaires, a potential candidate's line is always open.

Several in the top tier of the ultra wealthy are aggressively courted: industry titans Charles and David Koch; casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; hedge fund bosses Robert Mercer and Paul Singer; billionaire investor Tom Steyer, and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

These elites are not expected to be satisfied with pumping a few hundred thousand dollars into a favorite candidate's campaign; often they seek broader influence on election results up and down the ballot.

The Koch brothers, through a network of organizations they control, are trying to raise $889 million -- more than the Democratic and Republican national committees spent between them in 2012 -- to help elect as many libertarian-leaning Republicans as possible.

Their reach is long. Three ambitious senators -- Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio -- participated in a January debate organized by the Koch-affiliated Freedom Partners and conducted before hundreds of donors and entrepreneurs.

- How much for a president? -

Mounting a successful 21st century US presidential campaign requires spectacular financial reserves, and each check written by a Koch or Adelson or Steyer can equate to the contributions of hundreds of thousands of individual donors.

In 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a grand total of $2.6 billion was spent on the race that saw President Barack Obama stave off Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

About $1.1 billion of that was raised directly by candidates. Such donations are capped and tightly regulated, with only individuals allowed to make them.

Another billion was raised through so-called outside organizations that are officially independent from candidates.

Such contributions have been helped by a wave of campaign finance de-regulation, including a 2010 Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on political election spending by corporations.

For outside groups like these, there is no limit on donations, which can include direct corporate contributions. And some organizations are allowed to shield donors' names, leading to the cynical term for their contributions: "dark money."

- Funding limits? -

The coming election will be marked by unstoppable growth in contributions from non-institutional sources, money that will likely be used to saturate broadcast and online screens with political advertising.

Strict regulations adopted in the 1970s -- and again in 2002 after corruption scandals in the 1990s -- have rapidly eroded, said Paul Ryan, an election finance expert at The Campaign Legal Center, which exposes campaign finance abuse.

"The candidate contribution limit that has been on the books for decades, which in this cycle is $2,700 per donor, will largely be rendered meaningless," he told AFP.

"Post-2010, we really see a re-creation of the corrupting, unlimited money in politics that we had in the late 1990s" and earlier.

Many critics see the shift as deeply unsettling, but White House hopefuls are in no position to ignore the money train.

The New York Times recently reported that Hillary Clinton, as of now still a non-candidate for 2016, was appointing a trusted aide, Dennis Cheng, as a key fundraiser.

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