The first couple stepped out separately yesterday evening for destinations in the Washington suburbs: President Bush set off for a "very intimate dinner" at a McLean estate overlooking the Potomac River; first lady Laura Bush headed for a North Bethesda hotel.
It was one of the Bushes' biggest one-night forays into capital region politics.
Their appearances, essentially an hour or so of face time, raised roughly $2.3 million for Republican leaders in Maryland and Virginia.
The minimum donation for Laura Bush's appearance at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel was a $1,000 gift to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The minimum at the McLean dinner, at the home of developer and home builder Dwight Schar, was a $15,000 donation to Jerry W. Kilgore, gubernatorial candidate in Virginia's Nov. 8 election.
"They called and asked if we wanted 'dinner with the president,' " said Ray Breeden, chairman of the Breeden Co., a development firm based in Virginia Beach. "And who's going to turn that down?" Breeden was planning on flying his jet up for the event.
The allure of the first couple has long been used to spur donations on both sides of the Potomac. But yesterday's circumstances were a bit unusual.
"I don't know of any other time when the president and the first lady were off to different fundraisers on the same night in the D.C. suburbs," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. "In part, it's just a geographical accident. It's a very short trip, and a lot of money can be raised."
The invitation to Dwight and Martha Schar's luxurious home by the Potomac River in McLean beckoned with the promise of proximity to power: a "very intimate dinner," it proposed, with "our very special guest President George W. Bush."
What that meant in practice was a meal at a 10,000-square-foot house attended by Bush and about 100 other guests, campaign aides said, not including a phalanx of police and well-dressed security men. The dinner guests were guided down a windy, wooded road on the Schars' 10-acre estate, which bears the name "Wind Falls."
The McLean event was likely to raise about $2 million, making it by far the biggest fundraising event in the Virginia governor's race to date.
Tim Murtaugh, Kilgore's spokesman, said yesterday's financial rewards show that the Kilgore campaign holds appeal for everyone from Main Street America to "the leader of the free world."
But he declined to offer much information. Reporters were barred from the event. The Kilgore campaign refused to divulge such details as the names of attendees or even the menu.
But the invited included at least a few execs from the real estate, development and coal industries, to judge from campaign contribution reports filed after the invitation went out.
"We're going primarily because we know Jerry," said John K. Matney of Bristol, a businessman identified in contribution reports as part of the coal industry. "My wife went to college with Jerry."
Before the votes are counted, some of the most closely watched numbers in the governors' races of Virginia and Maryland will be the fundraising figures.
Each of Virginia's front-running candidates, Kilgore and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), had raised about $10 million through June 30, according to records kept by the Virginia Public Access Project.
The biggest campaign fundraiser for Kaine was one attended by Gov. Mark R. Warner that raised just over $1 million.
Warner "has been a really great advocate for us," said Delacey Skinner, Kaine's press secretary.
Both of the Republican campaigns for governor are hoping that last night's appearances will yield intangible benefits, too. Ehrlich has had sluggish poll numbers with female voters, and his aides said they view Laura Bush as a potential antidote to that. They expect several appearances by the first lady before the 2006 election.
Larry Helminiak, 65, a retired insulation contractor from Carroll County, said he had to attend once he learned of the opportunity to have his wife photographed with the first lady.
"She's my wife's favorite person on Earth," Helminiak said. "How many people get to take a picture with their favorite person on Earth?"
Tickets to the event started at $1,000 per person, but for $4,000, a couple could get a picture snapped with the first lady at a VIP reception beforehand.
Aides to Ehrlich said the event raised more than $250,000.
Laura Bush appeared in a small hotel ballroom where the crowd of about 250, which drew heavily from Montgomery County, nibbled crab cakes.
"It's nice to have very friendly neighbors," she told the Ehrlich crowd.
She said the president refers to Ehrlich as "Maryland's live wire," and she touched on issues likely to dominate his reelection campaign, including the recent news of a $1 billion budget surplus and his efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
Democrats expect Ehrlich to raise more than $20 million before the 2006 race is over, and his potential rivals have tried to show that they can compete.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said he collected $500,000 in April at a fundraiser in his home county.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) said he netted more than $2 million at an event last month at his city's downtown football stadium.
With almost 16 months remaining in the Maryland race, it appears on track to be the most expensive in state history.
John C. Reith, Ehrlich's finance director, said the White House had offered the first lady for the fundraiser.
"The White House," he said, "was very generous."
Staff writers Carol Morello and Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.