A major obstacle towards elucidating the molecular basis of transcriptional regulation is the lack of a detailed understanding of the interplay between non-specific and specific protein-DNA interactions. Based on molecular dynamics simulations of C2H2 zinc fingers (ZFs) and engrailed homeodomain transcription factors (TFs), we show that each of the studied DNA-binding domains has a set of highly constrained side chains in preset configurations ready to form hydrogen bonds with the DNA backbone. Interestingly, those domains that bury their recognition helix into the major groove are found to have an electrostatic hot spot for Cl- ions located on the same binding cavity as the most buried DNA phosphate. The spot is characterized by three protein hydrogen bond donors, often including two basic side chains. If bound, Cl- ions, likely mimicking phosphates, steer side chains that end up forming specific contacts with bases into bound-like conformations. These findings are consistent with a multi-step DNA-binding mechanism in which a pre-organized set of TF side chains assist in the desolvation of phosphates into well defined sites, prompting the re-organization of specificity determining side chains into conformations suitable for the recognition of their cognate sequence.