- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

From combined dispatches

President Bush yesterday hailed the Republican Party as the “party of ideals and vision” at a time when he and his allies in Congress have been struggling with weak poll numbers.

“The American people see the Republican party as the party of reform and optimism, and the party of ideals and vision,” Mr. Bush told a gala presented by the Republican National Committee to refill its coffers ahead of the 2006 midterm elections.

The 1,500 guests, including boxing promoter Don King, dined on spinach salad, beef loin and roast turkey. The event was expected to take in $15 million, a record for a year without a presidential election.

The gala used to be a black-tie affair with a formal dinner. But starting in 2003, when party committees no longer could accept donations from corporations and had to start relying on individual donations of up to $25,000 per year per donor, the RNC has sought to cut the overhead for its annual event.

Donors stood and dined buffet-style, rising on tiptoe to see the president over the heads of others in the packed basement ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Washington. Business attire was the suggested dress.

Mr. Bush referred to the amenities, or lack thereof, at the start of his 25-minute speech.

“Thanks for coming. Please be seated,” he said to laughter.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and other party officials attended. Some donors met with high-ranking Republicans in policy briefings before the event.

Mr. Bush’s approval ratings are hovering near the lowest levels of his presidency, but he brushed aside such numbers in his speech, saying, “I do not need a poll or a focus group to tell me where I need to lead this country.”

A survey by Pew Research taken from last Wednesday to Sunday put Mr. Bush’s overall approval rating at 43 percent and that of the Republican leadership in Congress at 35 percent versus an approval rating of 39 percent for congressional Democrats.

In his speech, Mr. Bush vowed to press ahead on his push to revamp Social Security, along with rewriting U.S. energy policy and overhauling a tax code that he said was “incoherent.”

?The debate has only just begun. But I believe the side of reform is going to prevail,” he said about the retirement program, which will go bankrupt in about 40 years.

Another setback for the party has been an ethics controversy swirling around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who has faced questions over his fundraising, foreign travel and relationships with lobbyists.

In his speech, Mr. Bush specifically praised Mr. DeLay’s leadership of the House.

Rather than hold on to its contributions for the 2006 elections, the RNC has starting tapping them for its voter registration efforts and other party-building activities.

As of April, according to the most recent figures available, the RNC had $26 million in the bank, compared with about $7 million for the Democratic National Committee.

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