JULIE PACE, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — If you have $40,000 to spend, President Barack Obama's campaign has a deal for you.
Write a big check, and you'll get you a picture with the president and a chance to swap political strategy with him — all while enjoying a gourmet meal at the lavish home of a Hollywood celebrity or Wall Street tycoon. And if you get the campaign even more money, you might just end up with a plum post as a U.S. ambassador or an invitation to an exclusive White House state dinner.
Obama not your preference? No problem. Mitt Romney is offering donors perks that include everything from a private dinner with him to seats at the fall debates.
Welcome to the world of high-dollar presidential campaign fundraising.
Five months before the November election, both candidates are stacking their schedules with big-money fundraising events from coast to coast as they look to stockpile cash for the height of the campaign. On Wednesday, Romney was courting donors in Texas while Obama was holding four fundraisers in California that were expected to yield at least $4.6 million.
Access to the most exclusive Obama events usually sets donors back a cool $40,000. That means the upper limits of campaign fundraising are reserved for a privileged few, given that the median household income in the U.S. was $49,445 in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
Some donors who paid the pricey tab for access to Obama fundraisers this year have been seated at exclusive dinners at the Los Angeles home of actor George Clooney or the New York townhouse of billionaire hedge-fund owner Marc Lasry. Next week, actress Sarah Jessica Parker will host a fundraiser with the president and Michelle Obama at her Manhattan home.
The president typically kicks off the high-dollar events with a version of his standard campaign speech. But the big perk for donors is the private question-and-answer session that follows. Sometimes the president grabs a microphone and fields questions from the center of the room; other times, he hops from table to table to hold small group discussions with his top fundraisers.
And of course, there's a chance to take a picture with the president.
While the press corps traveling with Obama usually is present for his opening remarks, the campaign kicks reporters out of the room before he starts taking questions.
Republicans have hammered him for attending glitzy, celebrity-filled fundraisers while the economy is still struggling to fully rebound from recession. But the White House says wealthy donors are not the core of Obama's support.
"President Obama has vast numbers of small donors who support his campaign," spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. "The fact that the president enjoys that kind of support speaks to what his policies are. He's out there fighting for the middle class."
The Obama campaign has held dozens of fundraising events where tickets run less than $40,000. But smaller donations come with fewer perks and far less direct engagement with the president.
In San Francisco on Wednesday, a $5,000 contribution bought an opportunity to hear Obama speak at a 250-person luncheon. But a $35,800 ticket gave 25 donors the chance to talk politics with the president at a private round-table event.
Tickets to hear Obama speak at a 600-person gala in Los Angeles later Wednesday started at $1,250. A $2,500 ticket to the same event, also featuring comedian Ellen DeGeneres, guaranteed better seats. And a $10,000 ticket came with the chance to shake the president's hand and pose with him for a photo.
Obama was to wrap up Wednesday's fundraising blitz with a private dinner for 70 people at the Beverly Hills home of "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy. Ticket price? $25,000.
On the Republican side, donors can expect to spend a minimum of $2,500 per person to hear Romney speak at a reception. And those who make a $10,000 personal donation or commit to raise $25,000 gain access to a smaller reception and a picture with the likely GOP nominee.
Fork over up to $50,000 and a Romney supporter may get a private dinner with him.
Romney's bundlers, who give the campaign all the money they collect from multiple donors, also are handsomely rewarded. Among the perks afforded to those who bundle at least $250,000 is access to the Republican convention, an election night event and a weekly briefing from the campaign. Bundlers who raise up to $500,000 also get access to the presidential debates in October.
Among the most exclusive opportunities offered to Romney bundlers: a summer retreat in Park City, Utah, later this month.
Presidential candidates can raise up to $50,800 from an individual donor as long as the money goes into a special fund that divvies up the proceeds among the candidate's campaign, his national party, state or local party committees and any other political committee.
For some wealthy supporters, as well as bundlers, a seat at a fundraiser is just the start of what they're after. Big campaign contributions can often be seen as a down payment for future access to the White House or a role in the administration.
Several top Obama donors from the 2008 campaign received ambassadorships, including posts in France, Spain and Switzerland. Other prominent supporters have been awarded positions on presidential advisory boards.
Tens of thousands of dollars can also buy top donors invitations to swanky White House events. More than 30 bundlers made the guest list for Obama's recent state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Obama is hardly the first president to grant special status to big money donors. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton both reserved seats at exclusive state dinners for supporters who made substantial financial contributions to their re-election campaigns. And if Romney is elected, he'll likely do the same, as well.
Clinton said during his presidency that high-dollar donations bought supporters a "respectful hearing if they have some concern about the issues." But he said: "Nobody buys a guaranteed result."
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Steve Peoples and Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.
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