WASHINGTON -- For banking trade groups, pre-election calendars are chock-full of "meet-and-greets" as congressional candidates discover that the road to Washington leads through this city, too.

This year the courtship involves more of the obscure of American politics than ever before.

In the unprecedented number of districts where no incumbents are running, hordes of little-known candidates are competing for open congressional seats.

One of the multitude is Sherrod Brown, a youthful Democratic state legislator from Ohio, who spent an hour one recent afternoon in the Thomas Circle offices of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

Making the Pitch

The congressional hopeful spent a few minutes on his background, recalling his opposition to interstate branching years earlier and detailing criticism of his Republican opponent.

Then Mr. Brown came to his main point: "I don't know what your financial position is, but I wanted to ask for a couple of -- oh, $3,000 or so."

"I don't know if we'll go that high," answered Stephen J. Verdier, an IBAA lobbyist. "But we do have money."

Working the PACs

For both parties in that exchange, the meeting was but one of a series.

Mr. Brown had already visited with 35 business-sponsored political action committees, as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also a source of campaign money.

Mr. Verdier estimated last week that he had met more than 100 candidates from districts with open seats, not only in his own office but through meet-and-greets sponsored by organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Democrat-oriented law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow.

The sessions provide benefits to both sides.

The Bottom Line

Candidates are motivated primarily by their quest for campaign funds.

Mr. Brown of Ohio didn't get as much as he wanted from the IBAA.

He ended up with $850, in part on the strength of recommendations from bankers back home, but also because of his performance at the trade group's office.

Many candidates also use their Washington treks to meet their party's congressional leadership and make a pitch for a favorable committee assignment.

Establishing Relationships

Lobbyists, meanwhile, are eager to begin building relationships with the outsize number of newcomers.

As many as 150 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives could turn over, wiping out years of effort that lobbyists have spent to cultivate lawmakers and staff.

"What does a lobbyists do when he's faced with the prospect of losing a third of his contacts?" said Mr. Verdier.

In addition to trying to get to know as many potential winners as possible, financial institution lobbyists are trying to identify candidates interested in serving on the House or Senate banking committees.

A few candidates are expected to ask for the banking committee, among them Delaware's Mike Castle and North Carolina's Mel Watt, both seen as shoo-ins for congressional seats.

Mr. Castle is a former governor who successfully promoted Delaware as a banking tax haven.

Banking as a Second Choice

But most of those seeking election this year have no banking aspirations.

"Many say banking is their second choice," said David Danovitch, a lawyer at Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue's Washington office.

Everyone wants to be on the Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Energy and Commerce committees, Mr. Danovitch said.

Freshman House members almost never draw such prestigious assignments, so they may get to pay their dues on the banking panel.

Many of the candidates express interest in banking issues even though they are not their top priorities, said Paul. A Schosberg, president of the Savings and Community Bankers of America.

"The interesting thing is that virtually all of the candidates we meet have shown a lot of interest in financial institutions issues, like housing," Mr. Schosberg said.

A Head Start

For him and other lobbyists, the early meetings serve as a head start on legislative agendas.

"It's not a question of getting them to accept the SCBA position on any one issue," Mr. Schosberg said.

"We're content just to get them thinking and talking about our positions."

Ideally, Mr. Schosberg would like to be able to offer a candidate an issue that might appeal to voters back home, like proposals for housing initiatives.

"Our feeling is that if we can identify a half-dozen issues that are important to their constituents, we'll have a leg up next year," he said.

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