Soros puts his millions to work for Kerry's challenge

By Joanna Chung

Financial Times

Published: October 25 2004

From worsting the Bank of England to spreading the gospel of democracy overseas, George Soros has long collided to dramatic effect with the world he inhabits.

But now the Hungarian-born financier turned US citizen, who has built up a $7.2bn fortune by taking huge market risks, is committing his cash to the most emotionally-charged gamble of his life: the drive to eject George W. Bush from the White House.

In a painfully close race, his financial muscle - and skill at exploiting loopholes in the newly-toughened legislation on political donations - could prove pivotal.

But his intervention has reignited concerns about the impact of big money on the US political process - and laid Soros, a veteran campaigner for campaign finance reform, open to charges of hypocrisy.

One thing is beyond question: at 74, Mr Soros is still a man who puts his mouth where his money is.

Not content with the millions of dollars he has already spent bankrolling political organisations responsible for the aggressive voter mobilisation drives and advertising campaigns that have marked this election year, he has been pounding the pavement himself, taking his message to the battleground states in the run-up to November 2.

At 7.30 on a rainy Boston morning we find him heading for Minneapolis to beat the drum in person for Senator John Kerry as part of a 12-stop speaking tour of battleground states.

So why would someone of his age and eminence continue to subject himself to the rigours of the road?

"I really think that the future of America and the future of the world are at stake," he says. "If I can actually contribute to changing the direction of American foreign policy, that would be greater than anything else that I have done."

It all began a world away from chilly Massachusetts, at a meeting in his Long Island mansion last summer where the organisers of America Coming Together - the get-out-the-vote organisation - disclosed a plan for a door-knocking campaign in five of what were then 17 closely contested states.

Mr Soros set the bar higher. "In order to make it worthwhile, we have to do it in all 17 states," he recalls thinking at the time. He asked his consultants to find ways to maximise the impact of his contributions. The vehicle they identified was the so-called 527 groups - political organisations named for a sectionin the tax code - that did not violate, at least in letter, the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law limiting soft money contributions.

"He changed the dynamic of the election, giving the 527s a life of their own," says William Angel, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus. "His efforts to get out the vote has inspired others to get out the vote."

So far Mr Soros has given $23.5m to more than half a dozen groups, including ACT. By being so vocal and encouraging others to contribute, he has also helped to level the playing field for the Democrats, who have traditionally trailed the Republicans in raising cash.

He admits he is "rather uncomfortable" playing such a partisan role. But he considers it a calling. "I have described it as messianic though I did not mean it in a religious sense," he says.

But the reluctance of a polarised nation to listen to reasoned argument clearly frustrates Mr Soros, who has based his financial and philanthropic activity on the idea that critical thought is the basis of a democracy or an "open society." However, campaign finance reformers who once saw Mr Soros as an ally are dismayed. "He's gone from being part of the solution to being part of the problem," says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a pro-reform group.

The right wing has sought to paint Mr Soros as a "leftwing radical," the "Daddy Warbucks of the Democrats," and even "Satan" himself for his prominent role in the Democratic effort. Mr Soros says he originally intended to keep a low profile to "exactly avoid making this an issue about me". He adds ruefully: "If it is a contest between George Soros and George Bush then I put all my money on George Bush."

But then he decided to use his notoriety as an advantage. Even so, the man who made $1bn out of Black Wednesday by betting against an overvalued sterling, is also the person who still appears far more comfortable discussing philosophy than giving stump speeches.

Mr Soros is cautiously optimistic that Mr Kerry will win and he dismisses punters who are giving a slight lead to Mr Bush. "I actually think that I should bet on the market," he says, with a mischievous smile. But that is only a joke. Or is it?