WASHINGTON - Republican Mitt Romney can count on some corporate and donor help for the occasional cut-rate travel. So can Democrat John Edwards and Republican Rudy Giuliani.
Campaign finance reports for the first three months of the year show how the use of corporate jets has created an uneven playing field between those presidential candidates who pay discounted fares for privately owned planes and those who pay full-charter prices.
What the reports do not show is that Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton logged about $450,000 in chartered planes, more than her top rivals. But she only disclosed a fraction of her overall travel costs.
Clinton aides said the totals will appear in a July 15 report because flight invoices had to be reconciled with the Secret Service, which provides her with security as the spouse of a former president. The government pays for Secret Service agents to fly on Clinton's charter flights.
"When all is said and done, our travel costs should be comparable to the other campaigns," Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said.
With a crowded field, early jockeying and a front-loaded primary schedule, it is no wonder that travel accounted for one of the biggest campaign expenses in the first three months of this year. Overall, the 18 presidential candidates spent $4 million on travel and lodging.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama was the biggest spender, accounting for nearly one-fourth of that total.
In a presidential contest in which ready access to a fast plane can be a ticket to money and votes, deciding how to line up some Lear, Gulfstream or Hawker jets is a calculation based on speed, cost and accessibility.
Just days into Romney's official campaign early this year, his finance director sent an e-mail to backers requesting access to private planes to help him hopscotch across the country. Soon, they were waiting on the tarmac - corporate jets from eBay, Detroit construction company Walbridge Aldinger or National Beef Packing chief executive John R. Miller, one of Romney's national finance chairmen.
Edwards spent more than $200,000 in the first quarter to fly on a plane owned by Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron, a longtime Edwards benefactor who is his national finance chairman. Giuliani has flown on private jets owned by retailer Target Corp., and cancer drug maker Abraxis Bioscience Inc.
All of them pay first-class fare for the trips, a rate allowed by the Federal Election Commission but a significant discount from the charter rate for such jets.
For example, a one-way first class ticket from Washington to Chicago on United Airlines with four days' notice is $694 per person. A typical one-way charter flight on a small Lear jet seating six people would cost about $9,000.
"It's another way an organization or an executive can curry favor with the candidates outside of the campaign contribution," said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog group.
Obama and Republican John McCain fly charter planes but have refused to take flights on private corporate planes. Clinton aides said she, too, is flying charter planes only.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., flies on corporate planes but pays the going charter rate, not the lower first-class fare. It is a symbolic gesture that abides by ethics legislation passed by the Senate this year but that is not yet law.
Obama reported paying $340,000 to a Kansas City, Mo.-based charter company. McCain paid about $270,000 to two charter companies.
Romney, Giuliani and Edwards also fly on regular chartered planes, paying the full-charter rate. But each paid less than $100,000 to charter companies because they also take private flights.
Corporate jet travel has been a long-valued perk of members of Congress. But recent lobbying scandals led the new Congress to reconsider the practice as it applies to lawmakers.
Proponents of tighter ethics rules would prefer that the restrictions on corporate jet travel apply to all federal candidates, not just elected officials.
"Everyone should be in the same position here, and corporations and others should not be allowed to curry favor with candidates or officeholders by, in effect, providing very substantial financial benefits in the form of deeply discounted fares," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, one of the groups seeking stiffer ethics laws.
Romney's campaign spent $20,500 in first-class fares to fly on the Walbridge Aldinger plane, whose chairman and chief executive is John Rakolta, a top Romney fundraiser. The campaign spent $3,100 for a jet owned by eBay, whose chief executive, Margaret Whitman, has known the former Massachusetts governor since their days together at Bain and Co.
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