Obama’s lawyer dominates Democratic money machine

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In the heat of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, when members of candidate Barack Obama’s staff began to fret about the potential for illegal attempts to intimidate voters on Election Day in Nevada, the campaign’s general counsel calmly told everyone on a staff conference call to settle down.

Don’t worry, lawyer Robert Bauer is said to have counseled. If necessary, the campaign will simply call the local authorities and have the opposition forces arrested.

That wasn’t really Mr. Bauer’s plan, of course. But the dose of bravado became such a rallying point, campaign staffers printed up T-shirt’s with the quote, “We may have to have some people arrested” on the back. On the front it read, “I ♥ Bob Bauer.”

There were many Washington insiders who saw their stars rise with Mr. Obama’s election 10 months ago. But few have soared as high or shone as brightly as Mr. Bauer.

Long a leading voice on campaign finance law, the trim, bearded, 57-year-old has since January established a near-monopoly over the Democratic Party’s election law franchise. In addition to the representation by his law firm, Perkins Coie, of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Mr. Bauer serves as chief counsel to the Democratic National Committee and as the president’s private attorney.

Where Mr. Bauer will lead the party in coming years could help shape the future of how federal campaigns are paid for, how elections are organized, and whether the troubled presidential public financing system will survive.

Mr. Bauer would not consent to an interview for this article. Mr. Obama recently issued an informal edict advising his staff not to assist with profiles. But numerous election lawyers who have battled alongside and against Mr. Bauer say they have no doubt where he will lead the Democratic Party on such matters: in whichever direction best suits the Democrats’ political interests.

In the close-knit community of campaign finance lawyers, most practitioners are purists known either as reformers trying to diminish the influential role of money on the political process or constitutionalists who believe campaign cash is a form of free speech that should remain free of government restrictions.

Mr. Bauer does not fall neatly into either category.

“He is a flexible advocate,” said Scott Thomas, a former Federal Election Commission chairman. “On behalf of his clients over time, he has been for soft money and against it. He has been for public financing and against it.”

What he is, unquestionably, Mr. Thomas said, is a passionate advocate for his clients. It’s something Mr. Thomas and his fellow FEC commissioners saw for years as Mr. Bauer built a reputation for finding novel arguments, delivering them in eloquently written briefs, and advocating for them not only in traditional ways but in long-running conversations that appeared on his Web blog.

The blog — moresoftmoneyhardlaw.com — became a vehicle not only for promotion of his musings on campaign finance law, but a tool by which he could communicate indirectly with FEC commissioners and opposing lawyers. Most mornings, even as he represented a full complement of clients, he would produce a penetrating look at a pending legal issue.

“He was incredibly prolific,” said Gerald Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, who worked both with and against Mr. Bauer. “He often had an extensive blog post every day, and the depth of thinking that went into these pieces was incredible.”

It was through his association with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that Mr. Bauer first began representing Mr. Obama when he came to the Senate in 2005. At first, the work dealt with the routine matters that face a new member, but in late 2006, it shifted unexpectedly with Mr. Obama’s surprise decision to make a run for the White House.

In an interview with magazine Super Lawyers, Mr. Bauer described the head-spinning speed with which a conversation about a presidential bid went from an unformed idea to a full-fledged campaign.

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