Bush Still Chief GOP Fundraiser Despite Flagging Polls

President Bush talks to Cecil Ferrell about his plan to restructure Social Security during a visit to Hopkinsville, Ky.
President Bush talks to Cecil Ferrell about his plan to restructure Social Security during a visit to Hopkinsville, Ky. (By Larry Downing -- Reuters)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005

ST. LOUIS, June 2 -- President Bush headlined a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser for Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) Thursday night, putting his popularity to the test at a time when his approval rating among voters has plummeted to all-time lows and some of his most important initiatives are struggling to gain traction in Congress.

Bush's appearance at the fundraiser helped draw a crowd of 1,000 supporters to the Millennium Hotel, and the event was expected to raise $1.5 million for Talent's 2006 reelection campaign, said Rich Chrismer, a Talent spokesman.

The first-term senator has been a strong supporter of a wide range of Bush policies, including limits on stem cell research and plans to restructure the Social Security system by curbing future benefit increases for middle- and upper-income workers, while allowing workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private accounts.

Such stalwart support in Congress is proving elusive for the president less than five months into his second term. His Social Security plan has been stalled by Democrats' solid opposition, deep doubts among Republicans and growing skepticism by Americans quizzed by pollsters. He also has had trouble winning congressional support for his energy policy, emphasizing coal and nuclear power. In addition, John R. Bolton, his nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, has run into a thicket of opposition in the Senate. Meanwhile, some of his fellow Republicans are defying his calls for limits on federally funded stem cell research.

Bush has blamed the rash of political problems on a poisonous partisan atmosphere in Washington. Appearing in Hopkinsville, Ky., to promote his plan for restructuring Social Security before flying here, Bush said of the nation's capital, "There's too much politics up there, pure and simple.

"There is kind of a zero-sum attitude. 'See, if we do this, so-and-so might look good; or such-and-such party might benefit; and, therefore, let's do nothing.' It's not the right attitude, you know that?" said Bush, who vowed to overcome that attitude by continuing to take his case directly to the public. So far, he has made stops in 27 states to promote his plans; this was his second trip to Kentucky -- he visited Louisville on March 10.

But with midterm election campaigns approaching, some of the president's aides say privately that his most ambitious initiatives, including restructuring Social Security, must win broader support soon if they are going to be enacted this year.

Despite weak poll numbers and the lack of progress in Congress for his priorities, Bush and Vice President Cheney remain star attractions on the GOP fundraising circuit. Bush made an appearance at a March dinner that raised $8 million for the party's congressional campaign committee. Earlier this month, he starred at a Republican National Committee gala that raised more than $15 million.

Bush is scheduled to travel to Pennsylvania on June 14 to raise more than $1 million to help bolster Sen. Rick Santorum's reelection campaign, GOP officials said. Later that night, Bush and Cheney are to appear at the annual dinner in Washington to benefit both of the party's campaign committees. The National Republican Senatorial Committee hopes to raise $8 million there, and the National Republican Congressional Committee said it expects to pocket $14 million, party officials said. Since February, Cheney has also appeared at fundraisers for more than a half-dozen congressional candidates.

Here in Missouri, Bush remains a popular draw, although several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the hotel where he was speaking to protest his Social Security plans and to call on Talent to take a stand against private accounts.

"Senator Talent is honored that the president is coming to Missouri on his behalf," Chrismer said. "They share the values of the heartland. They believe in protecting America's security and a pro-growth agenda."

Political researcher Brian Faler in Washington contributed to this report.

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