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A rare rough spot in fund-raising

WASHINGTON - From the announcement of Barack Obama's candidacy to the management of his presidential transition, his organization - including the biggest fund-raising operation in U.S. political history - has rolled forward with seemingly flawless precision.

WASHINGTON - From the announcement of Barack Obama's candidacy to the management of his presidential transition, his organization - including the biggest fund-raising operation in U.S. political history - has rolled forward with seemingly flawless precision.

But for the team trying to pull in more than $40 million to pay for the festivities at his inauguration, the process has had some uncharacteristically bumpy moments. Officials expect to meet their budget and underwrite a colossal celebration that they say will be open to more people than ever.

Still, with less than a month to go, organizers have told some supporters they might not get all the goodies they had expected in exchange for big-bucks donations. And they have scrambled to think up new ways to deal with the insatiable appetite of wealthy supporters not just to attend but also to buy themselves VIP status.

Potentially millions of people are expected to squeeze in around the Capitol and onto the National Mall for the Jan. 20 swearing-in. Most will contend with frigid weather, traffic and transit jams, and walks from distant staging areas - all for a fleeting glimpse of the new president.

Those making big-dollar donations will be rewarded with exclusive tickets, up-front seating, and invitations to exclusive events, including a black-tie dinner with Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. for hundreds of the most generous supporters.

Anyone raising $300,000 or more will earn the title "trustee" and get four tickets to every special inaugural event, along with seats to the swearing-in and parade.

Rewarding big-money donors with such favors is nothing new. But the challenge is especially difficult this time.

Many potential givers are experiencing donor fatigue after the long campaign, especially with the economy in a tailspin. And in keeping with Obama's promise of high ethical standards, his canvassers have operated under a limit of $50,000 per contribution from individuals. His camp also banned donations from corporations, unions, and political action committees.

That means more donors were needed - as were more enticements.

The demand for special treatment has been so great that the inauguration committee faced the possibility of well-heeled supporters being turned away from some of the most sought-after events - a fund-raiser's nightmare. Many donors still do not know whether they will get tickets to coveted inaugural balls.

"There is frustration because individuals in some cases still do not know what they are getting for their donations," said one fund-raiser who is bundling money from several wealthy families and helping to coordinate their travel to the inauguration.

The fund-raiser, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the problems were similar to those of past inaugurations, "only more so. There is more demand than ever for access to special events, but the capacity is the same."

In response, inauguration organizers created a new package for $10,000 givers: Each gets the title of "sponsor" and a more limited set of tickets and party invitations. Sponsors also get two tickets to a late-night party the Saturday before the inauguration, and to a candlelight dinner.

Donors giving the $50,000 maximum are called "finance chairs" and get full access to everything, but they receive fewer tickets to each event than the "trustees."

The 2005 inauguration budget was roughly the same as Obama's, but organizers for President Bush accepted donations of up to $250,000 and money and in-kind support from corporations and PACs.

"We have the broadest inaugural fund-raising restrictions in history," said Linda Douglass, chief spokeswoman for Obama's inaugural committee. For the first time, she said, donations are searchable online.

The money is necessary, she said, "to make this the most open and accessible inaugural," paying for VIP events as well as jumbo TV screens and other amenities for the crowds on the Mall.

Advocates of campaign-finance reform said the inaugural fund-raising was more similar to than different from that of previous administrations. Most of Obama's campaign money came from donors giving $1,000 or more, and individuals still have to be wealthy to afford even the minimum tier of exclusive events at the inauguration.

"Obama continues to depend on large donors," said Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a reform advocacy organization.

So far, according to the inaugural committee Web site, $21.9 million has been raised. And while the fund-raising system may not have changed much, the makeup of those attending the official inaugural parties will be somewhat different - and not just because there will be Democrats this year instead of Republicans.

"The traditional K Street network seems to be less important" to fund-raising and planning, said John Zive, a lawyer and lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington. Partly because Obama is insisting on banning lobbyists from donating to the inauguration, Zive said, "there aren't a tremendous amount of solicitations inside the Beltway."

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