The American Bankers Association used its annual convention as the launching pad for a last-ditch, grassroots effort to convince the Senate to pass financial reform.

On the third and final day of the annual confab the ABA distributed a form authorizing it to send faxes from each of the convention goers to their U.S. senators. Departing ABA president William T. McConnell told bankers to follow up this week with calls urging senators to support financial reform.

Mr. McConnell's pitch came at the end of his passionate farewell speech, in which he vowed the industry will continue the credit union battle.

"We are prepared to go forward and we intend to go forward, and we will win," he said. "We just have to be smarter and figure out the right message."

He criticized the industry's lobbying efforts in the credit union fight. "They outhustled us," he said. That should never happen again, he added.

"We just cannot quit," he said. "We cannot abandon the field to our adversaries. The stakes are just too great."

More than a year in the making, an advertising campaign aimed at sprucing up banking's image is finally set to launch next week.

Mr. McConnell said members have kicked in the $1 million needed to buy airtime for a series of television ads that have been sitting on ABA shelves since last summer. The spots will begin airing Monday on CNBC, MSNBC, and CNN Headline News and run through Thanksgiving.

But Mr. McConnell could not hide his disappointment in the fund-raising effort and pleaded with his fellow bankers to dig deeper into their pockets. Citing estimates that credit unions raised $25 million on lobbying this year, Mr. McConnell said $1 million for an entire industry "is nothing to be proud of. When it comes to spending money, the fact is that we just don't do it."

The campaign, "Nothing Works Like Money in the Bank," targets high- income customers who likely have money in stocks, mutual funds, or other investments. The ABA spent close to $1 million from its own budget to create and test-market the print, radio, and television ads last year. In announcing the campaign, then-ABA president Walter A. Dods Jr. asked individual banks to contribute between $250 for banks with assets under $25 million and $25,000 for banks with over $10 billion of assets.

Joe Williams, president and chief executive officer at American Heritage Bank in El Reno, Okla., said it will be a "tall order" for the ABA to raise additional money for the nationwide campaign.

Most community banks, he said, prefer to spend ad dollars touting their products in their markets and promoting the differences between their bank and the big banks.

But Mr. Williams, chairman of the ABA's community bankers council, said community banks should be more concerned about credit unions and brokerage firms. "We have to be thinking on a broad scale to try to improve banking's image instead of taking easy potshots at the competitor down the street," he said.

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With more of a whimper than a bang, the ABA elected its 1998-99 officers, including R. Scott Jones as president. The slate, which was unopposed, drew only modest "ayes" from members, prompting one banker to quip sarcastically, "Democracy in action."

Mr. Jones vowed to improve the ABA's grassroots lobbying efforts, saying an industry with 1.5 million employees ought to be more effective on Capitol Hill. "We absolutely must reinvigorate the grass roots of this organization," he said.

A task force led by James E. Smith, president and CEO of Union State Bank and Trust Co. in Clinton, Mo., will develop specific steps for the group to improve its lobbying efforts, Mr. Jones said.

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Saturday night's reception, whose theme was "the Little Mermaid," was supposed to take place around the half-acre, 500,000-gallon pool, but thunderstorms forced the crowd indoors.

Nevertheless, Kelly O'Brien was decked out in a mermaid suit as the centerpiece of the event. Bankers mobbed her much of the night.

"They all ask me if I'm real," Ms. O'Brien said. "I say, 'Of course.'"

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The putting greens that dominated last year's exhibit hall were mostly absent this week, perhaps as companies realized they could not compete with the 45 holes of golf offered just yards away.

Still, exhibitors loaded convention goers with freebies. Orange walking sticks were everywhere, distributed by the Corporation for American Banking, ABA's for-profit subsidiary. Yet the most pursued giveaway seemed to be the flip-flops distributed by Private Business Inc., which sells software to help banks manage their receivables.

On Sunday bankers drank complimentary coffee from a mug provided by Clarke-American, which they got to keep as a souvenir. Also popular were collapsible water bottles offered by First Data Corp.

Other companies tried to connect their freebie to the product they were offering. SEI Liquidity Management Inc. gave away computer keyboard brooms to celebrate a new sweeps account program it was selling while the Postal Service offered postage stamp lapel pins.

More than 150 bankers participated in the Greg Norman golf-swing analysis. They were videotaped hitting a ball on Saturday and on Sunday received a tape with personalized suggestions for improving technique.

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