WASHINGTON — What's one of the more popular political pinatas that all three presidential hopefuls enjoy swinging at, besides one another?
"You can't be the champion of working Americans if you're funded by the lobbyists who drown out their voices," Democratic Sen. Barack Obama said in his concession speech Tuesday night after losing the Pennsylvania primary. "... We won't take a dime of their money."
"I'm announcing an agenda to rein in the special interests," Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton told union workers last fall.
"Everyone says they're against the special interests, but I'm the only one the special interests don't give any money to," Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee-in-waiting, boasted earlier in the campaign.
But Washington has always been an insider's game, no matter how populist the rhetoric.
Despite how much they demonize special interests, all three candidates take political and policy advice from many of the lobbyists who represent them, such as the energy and pharmaceutical industries. They also count on lobbyists to raise funds for their campaigns.
"It strains credulity to say these lobbyists aren't going to occupy a special position in the mind of a person elected president," said Taylor Lincoln, a research director at Public Citizen, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy group. "Whether getting improper favors or just getting their phone calls returned, they undoubtedly are going to be treated with more reverence than the average citizen."
Lobbyists' ubiquity in the presidential race isn't surprising. You can hardly spill a latte in Washington without spoiling the shine on a lobbyist's shoes.
More than 40,000 lobbyists are registered with the Senate, according to congressional records, though not all are active. Many combine corporate and campaign work.
McCain relies on lobbyists a lot, according to several watchdog groups. Media Matters for America, a liberal group that scrutinizes press coverage, compiled a list of more than two dozen lobbyists in his campaign orbit.
Among them: campaign manager Rick Davis, whose former firm lobbied for SBC Communications and Comsat; chief fundraiser Thomas Loeffler, whose firm has lobbied for AT&T, Airbus and the pharmaceutical industry; and senior adviser Charles Black Jr., a longtime Washington lobbyist and Republican political guru.
Public Citizen said McCain also has more current and former lobbyists serving as "bundlers," supporters who raise money through a network of acquaintances.
One of Obama's biggest selling points has been his campaign's effort to portray his potential presidency as the end of politics as usual.
"I intend to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over," he said last winter while campaigning in New Hampshire.
But to win the White House, Obama has reached out to some of the same corporate lobbyists that he's villainized.
Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota and now a rainmaker and consultant at one Washington's big lobbying firms, is a top adviser.
Government oversight groups have applauded Obama's effort to champion change and his refusal to accept money from federally registered lobbyists or political action committees. Clinton and McCain accept money from both.
Still, Obama does take money from corporations and other groups with agendas before Congress. The securities and investment industry, for example, has given him and Clinton nearly $7 million apiece. McCain has received $3 million.
Commercial banks: $1.4 each million for Obama and Clinton, and $863,000 for McCain.
FactCheck.org, a media oversight project at the University of Pennsylvania, called Obama's approach "a distinction without very much of a practical difference."
"We're not sure how a $5,000 contribution from, say, Chevron's PAC would have more influence on a candidate than, for example, the $9,500 Obama has received from Chevron employees giving money individually," the group said in its analysis.
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor acknowledged that while Obama's effort to resist lobbyists wasn't "a perfect solution or symbol, it does reflect Obama's record of trying to change the way that Washington does business."
The Clinton campaign also has worked closely with lobbyists. It held a policy briefing on rural America last fall in the offices of Troutman Sanders, which lobbies for Monsanto, a St. Louis-based multinational agribusiness corporation.
Clinton's lobbying links also were evident recently when she demoted top strategist Mark Penn after his business ties became a political embarrassment.
Penn, chief executive officer of the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, had met with the Colombian ambassador because his firm had a contract with Colombia to promote free-trade legislation. But Clinton had been denouncing the bill because the unions that back her oppose it.
Another top political guru in Clinton's camp, Harold Ickes Jr., also has been a lobbyist. Communications director Howard Wolfson is a former partner in the Glover Park Group, a consulting and public relations firm whose clients also have included Colombia, along with Microsoft and Pfizer.
Clinton, as well as McCain, accepts contributions from lobbyists. She received $865,000 from lobbyists as of March, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. McCain has gotten $591,000.
"Based on my 35 years of fighting for what I believe in, I don't think anybody seriously believes I'm going to be influenced by a lobbyist," Clinton told an audience of bloggers and progressive activists last year.
McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said the senator "has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests."
The Obama campaign has received $115,000 from lobbyists, according to the center's analysis. But Vietor said the campaign has returned any contributions from lobbyists.