The Republican political establishment is throwing Texas Gov. George W. Bush a coming-out party in Washington tonight that will be the largest presidential fund-raiser ever here, but it is just one particularly lucrative stop on a cross-country money tour that is expected to boost his campaign over the $20 million mark by the end of June.
From Florida to Michigan to South Carolina, Bush will touch down this week at a dozen fund-raising events aimed at solidifying his pack-leading status while his GOP rivals struggle to finish even a distant second. Bush's allure is especially potent here in Washington, where front-runners are automatically favorite sons in the political cash chase.
Indeed, the invitation list for tonight's reception at the Washington Hilton -- no dinner will be served to the $1,000-a-person crowd to accommodate more check writers -- is the equivalent of a Republican social register, a compendium of more than 300 blue-chip political names who pledged to raise $25,000 as "co-chairs" and $10,000 as "vice chairs."
Not even Bush's father, running as an incumbent president in 1992 after more than two decades in Washington, raised as much from as many inside the Beltway in a single evening -- an irony that could complicate his son's effort to run as a Texan who is not a part of the D.C. status quo.
The campaign would not say just how big tonight's event will be, but sources familiar with the planning said it was expected to top $1.5 million. "I feel sure it's going to be the biggest one ever in D.C.," said organizer James C. Langdon Jr., a lawyer with Akin Gump and a Bush friend who is helping to lead the Washington fund-raising. The hour-long VIP reception before the main event "will be bigger than most events are," added Sheldon Kamins, a Potomac developer who is another organizer.
The List itself is an exercise in intimidation. Amounting to a Republican executive branch-in-exile, it boasts, from the governor's father's administration, former secretaries of commerce and transportation, a former attorney general, a former U.S. trade representative, several onetime ambassadors, a host of former assistant secretaries and just about every GOP lobbyist of consequence. In a town where the business is politics, even some whose personal loyalties lie with Elizabeth Dole or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) clamored to be on this particular Bush list.
So many signed up, in fact, that in the unlikely event they all met their fund-raising commitments, the Bush campaign would be $5.2 million richer.
"Did you see that invitation list?" asked Mel Sembler, the Republican National Committee finance chairman who was named ambassador to Australia by Bush's father but says he is officially neutral in this race. "Can you believe it?"
Like other veterans of the political fund-raising circuit, Sembler insisted that he can recall no precedent for this Bush's fund-raising success. "I've never seen it happen this way before. What is unprecedented is the large amount of money this early."
Advisers to the other candidates acknowledge they cannot compete. "They're breaking every record in the books," said Dole spokesman Ari Fleischer. "For all intents and purposes, Washington, D.C., has become a suburb of Austin, Texas." McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky agreed. "It's an establishment party," he said of tonight's fund-raiser. "Every lobbyist in the city will be there."
Bush advisers say his success here is not unique. "Washington is huge, but it mirrors what the governor has found around the country," said Ron Kaufman, who was White House political director under Bush's father and now works at the D.C. lobbying firm The Dutko Group. In Boston, for example, Kaufman noted that Bush's father had set the previous GOP presidential record -- a $280,000 event -- that stood until the son's fund-raising lunch there last week, which collected $800,000.
Last week, Bush's Beantown fund-raiser came after his fund-raising debut in St. Louis ($500,000) and Chicago ($500,000) and right before another record-setting performance in Greenwich, Conn., that brought in more than $1 million. This week, Washington is a way station on the $1,000-check circuit -- in between South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida.
Next week the money tour heads to California.
Bradford Freeman, a Bush friend organizing the California events, has booked Bush into the state for a two-day, seven-event tour that will raise more than $2 million.
"Where people will sit at the tables, where they appear on the invitation -- those are the sorts of major things I'm asked to get involved in," he said.
Overall, sources close to the Bush effort said they expect to reach the $20 million figure by the June 30 close of the second quarter, after posting $7.6 million in receipts at the end of March. They are hoping to outraise Vice President Gore, who beat them in the first quarter with $8.9 million raised and who leaves today on a nine-day fund-raising tour. Both Bush and Gore are aiming to raise more than $50 million.
As the numbers mount in Bush's bank account, his GOP rivals are finding it harder to fill their own coffers. "They are sucking all the oxygen out of the room," said former representative Bill Paxon, a top party strategist who is now a lobbyist and Bush supporter. "The other campaigns are not being able to stay in play."
Sources said both Dole and McCain hope to collect $3 million to $4 million this quarter, compared with Bush's more than $12 million, but they are increasingly turning to creative strategies to stay afloat. Dole, for example, is aggressively marketing herself to businesswomen, hoping, as a senior campaign official said, "to create a new fund-raising market" because of Bush's success with traditional GOP donors.
Dole is also deploying husband Robert J. Dole, who the campaign credits with having raised more than $100,000 for her bid since he famously ruminated to a newspaper reporter about possibly giving fund-raising assistance to her rival McCain.
But sources familiar with her effort said Bush's big numbers have severely limited Dole's fund-raising potential. "She's having great difficulty," said one Washington lobbyist close to the Dole team who noted that her big D.C. "sweeper" event pulled in only $500,000 despite her Washington home address and long career here.
To the Bush team, that speaks to the culture of a city where winning elections is paramount. "I think people are looking for a winner," said Bush finance chairman Donald L. Evans of the Washington turnout for his candidate.
In particular, that has boosted the Texan's appeal to lobbyists, several of his fund-raisers said. "They're the ones who read the polls and read the tea leaves," said one Bush veteran. "They've been on board for a while."
Among the heavy-hitting lobbyists who are collecting five figures or more for Bush are former RNC chairman Haley Barbour; former Bush transportation secretary Andrew Card, who is now General Motors Corp.'s chief lobbyist; J. Steven Hart, a lobbyist with Williams & Jensen closely tied to the House GOP leadership; and Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute.
"That is a bragging-rights list," said one lobbyist who, like several others, made sure his name was on it even though his loyalties lie with Dole.
But Bush's Washington converts are quick to point out that a list this big draws from several different Beltway tribes.
"I look at this list in thirds," said Peter Terpeluk Jr., a Washington business consultant who has been active in lining up Bush "Pioneers" to raise $100,000 or more for the campaign. "One third of the people were deeply involved with Bush/Reagan," he said of such figures as former White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater and Bush campaign adviser Mary Matalin.
But, he added, "another third are involved in the political life of Washington -- the Hill, trade associations. They think that Bush is it, so they're there. The other third, I've never seen before."
Terpeluk hosted what he called "the pre-sell" for tonight's Bush fund-raiser at his home last month.
More than 230 people showed up -- a far bigger crowd than for many actual events in presidential politics.
If anything, the problems with tonight's fund-raiser reflected a Bush campaign awash in cash if not in specific policy proposals from their candidate.
"I'm doing what everybody's doing: trying to find any money that hasn't already been raised here," said one prominent lobbyist in the $25,000 category. "People are kind of tripping all over themselves."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.