President Remains A Skilled Fundraiser

President Bush mingles with constituents before leaving Jackson, Miss., where he spoke at a fundraiser for the election of Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
President Bush mingles with constituents before leaving Jackson, Miss., where he spoke at a fundraiser for the election of Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

LITTLE ROCK -- After less than an hour visiting a housing assistance agency, President Bush and his motorcade sped to a private home here last Tuesday to make a quick appearance -- and deliver a whole lot of money -- for the Republican Party.

It was his second fundraiser of the day. Four hours earlier, Bush was 260 miles away in Jackson, Miss., speaking at a private luncheon to raise money for the election of newly appointed Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). The total from the two events: more than $1 million.

His popularity rating in national polls is dismally low, and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, is doing his best to avoid him, but Bush remains a formidable force on the GOP fundraising circuit during his final months in office.

He has already clocked 31 political events this year, raising nearly $70 million for GOP candidates and the national and state parties, according to the Republican National Committee. The tally puts the president on track to meet or exceed the amount he raised before the midterm elections in 2006, according to GOP officials.

To look at it another way: Since the start of 2007, Bush alone is responsible for raising more money than the entire Democratic National Committee.

"This president still has fundraising muscle," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "Despite the economy, the war and the Republican brand problem, his numbers among Republicans are still very good. . . . He's still the commander in chief, with the top political job in the country."

But Bush's fundraising prowess is not without its limits, in large part because of his stubbornly low approval ratings. All but four of Bush's fundraising events this year have been held inside closed dinners or behind the tall fences and manicured gardens of wealthy private homes, such as the ones in Jackson and Little Rock. And although several of the most lucrative fundraising events have been held in New York, Los Angeles and the District, a majority have been concentrated in Republican strongholds.

Most notably, Bush the fundraiser has crossed paths only once with McCain, a senator from Arizona, when the president appeared at three closed-door events in Arizona and Utah in late May. The two men emerged for a single public photo opportunity on the tarmac at the Phoenix airport; their appearance together lasted less than 30 seconds.

This somewhat furtive approach to fundraising underscores the balancing act being played by both Bush and McCain, who is trying to limit his connection with the outgoing president while still tapping Bush's strong support within the GOP base. One senior McCain campaign official, who insisted on anonymity to speak candidly, pointed to previous campaigns by Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988, when both candidates sought to chart their own path from an incumbent president of the same party.

"Gore took heat for not being out there with Clinton, and here we are taking heat for being too close to Bush," the official said. "This is a dance and a procedure that takes place anytime you have an incumbent president."

But Michael Feldman, who was a senior adviser to Gore, said there is a "fundamentally different set of circumstances" this year because of Bush's unpopularity. "His strongest contribution will be going to high-dollar fundraisers and raising as much money for the campaign and the RNC as he can, and staying as far removed as possible from the McCain campaign in the process," Feldman said.

Barry Jackson, Bush's chief political adviser, said in an interview that Bush spent much of the last year laying the political ground for the eventual GOP nominee in fundraising swings throughout the country. He said Bush will continue to do so for "candidates from the top of the ticket on down."

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