- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

The Bush-Cheney fund-raising locomotive steamed out of the station this week and is on track to haul in upward of $175 million for the 2004 presidential election, putting the field of nine Democratic challengers at a dollar disadvantage that will last right up to Election Day.

Just days after the president announced his intention to run for re-election, the Republicans brought in $22 million at a dinner Wednesday for congressional candidates. A few days before the President’s Dinner, top Republicans had projected the take at about $7 million.

“I think our efforts so far definitely show that we’re united and energized as we head into the 2004 cycle,” said Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, one of the groups that organized the dinner. “We’re committed to go out and raise the resources, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Mr. Bush has a crowded fund-raising schedule next month, stopping at events in the District on June 17; in Greensboro, Ga., on June 20; in New York City on June 23; in San Francisco and Los Angeles on June 27; and in Miami and Tampa on June 30.

“Along the same lines, in 2000, the president’s compassionate conservative message and record of leadership attracted broad support across the country,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday. “We are hopeful that the president’s strong leadership and bold vision for the future will again attract support in the coming months.”

If the success at the President’s Dinner is any indication, the Bush-Cheney fund-raising operation could set records, as it did in 2000.

While the dinner raised money for congressional candidates, it also showcased Mr. Bush’s power to draw donations. The $22 million haul in one night nearly equaled the fund-raising operations for the nine Democratic presidential candidates in the first three months of the year — $25.8 million.

The dinner is seen as a barometer of how the Republican Party will do under the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

The law — named for sponsors Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat — is in limbo until the Supreme Court takes up the matter. It strictly limits donations by individuals and bans contributions of “soft money,” unregulated donations to political parties from corporations and other large entities.

While a similar dinner last year brought in a record $30 million, including a slew of six-figure “soft money” contributions, the event this time, at $2,500-a-ticket, fell under the new law, which limits to $25,000 per calendar year individual donations to political committees.

The $22 million draw, three times the estimate, shows that the new law may not have any adverse effect on fund raising, said one top Republican official.

“I think the dinner showed people … that the Republican Party has a broad base of financial support. I think the party with a broad base of support rather than a few rich donors is a healthier party,” the official said.

Just as Mr. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney did in 2000, the pair plans to reject federal matching funds for their 2004 campaign, which would limit their spending during the primaries and general election. If Democrats take the matching cash, as they did in 2000, they will face a spending limit of about $50 million between now and the political conventions in August 2004.

The Bush-Cheney ticket could spend at least three times as much as their Democratic opponents, who are likely to have spent much of their money by April, with nine candidates vying for the nomination.

Democrats concede Republicans have the money edge.

“Obviously, we’re going to be facing a $250 million White House fund-raising machine. We’re realistic about it,” said Guillermo Meneses, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

“But we will have enough money to be competitive, and we will have a strong candidate. We have the issues on our side, and we will have the American people on our side,” the spokesman said. “President Bush has failed the American people, and no amount of money will help him get re-elected in 2004.”

Jano Cabrera, spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman, said: “At the end of the day, it really won’t matter how much money Bush raises for himself, it will matter how much money the American people feel they have and whether or not they think the economy is on sound, stable footing.”

The Democratic candidates are scrambling to come up with an effective strategy to draw big cash. “The one who figures out the puzzle may be the one who takes the nomination,” said one top Democratic official.

Mike Siegel, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said his organization is working to create a way to draw cash under the new regulations.

“We have constructed a very new fund-raising apparatus that allows to reach out both from the boardrooms of Wall Street to the donors of Main Street at the grass-roots level. We feel very comfortable not only about our ability to raise money, but also the nature of our message,” he said.

The Bush-Cheney ticket also has a new strategy to draw dollars. In 2000, more than 200 cash collectors dubbed “pioneers” raised at least $100,000 each.

This time, Mr. Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, is adopting the name for a new team of volunteer fund-raisers who are expected to raise at least $200,000 each for his re-election campaign.

The “rangers” will not be as numerous as the pioneers, but they will work to draw donations of hard money from individuals, who can give $2,000 to candidates directly, twice the 2000 limit.

Although the Bush-Cheney ticket drew about $100 million for the 2000 election — twice that of the Gore-Lieberman team — the Republican official said there is no truth to estimates reported by news organizations that they will collect upward of $250 million.

“Two hundred and fifty [million] dollars is a wrong number. Maybe $170 [million]. There will be more money but there won’t be twice as much money,” the official said.

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