Campaign travel costs soaring

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 among 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.

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, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.