Saturday, July 19, 2003

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush, whose poll numbers have been falling amid rising casualties in Iraq, a sputtering economy and a media firestorm about a false assertion in his State of the Union address, has not lost the Midas touch when it comes to fund raising.

In two days — more precisely, in two half-hour appearances Friday in Dallas and yesterday in Houston — the president pulled in more than $7 million for his 2004 campaign.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who abandoned his House minority leader position to run for president, has collected $7.4 million in six months. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean collected $7.6 million in the past three months, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, considered to be the Democrats’ best prospect, gathered $5.8 million.

“President Bush is creaming the Democrats, and it’s just going to get worse,” a top Republican official said. “He’s not really even trying yet.”

Mr. Bush has raised nearly $40 million in three months. Even first lady Laura Bush is getting into the act, drawing $500,000 in contributions during her brief fund-raising event Friday in Raleigh, N.C.

During the same period, the Democratic hopefuls have raised a total of $31 million.

And the president hasn’t appeared to break a sweat.

In his 24-minute speech to 900 supporters at a swanky Dallas hotel Friday, Mr. Bush trotted out a version of a speech he used to deliver before September 11. Emphasizing education, an economic-recovery plan, Medicare reform and compassionate conservatism, the president ticked off the achievements of his administration and his hopes for the near future.

To that standard stump speech he has added a national security element, emphasizing his creation of the Department of Homeland Security and his plans to ensure the safety of Americans. In his radio address yesterday, the president illustrated his optimism about the economy, saying, “The American economy is headed in the right direction, and we can be confident of better days ahead.”

Although Mr. Bush said in Dallas, “The political season will come in its own time,” his increased fund-raising schedule shows it has arrived.

“You’re laying the foundation for what is going to be a great victory in November of 2004,” he said in Dallas. “I’m getting ready, loosening up. But I’m going to have to count on you to energize the grass roots and to make the phone calls and to put up the signs and to address the envelopes and remind everybody that our message is so positive and hopeful for every citizen of this state and this country.”

So far, the grass roots are widespread. “We have received donations from 84 percent of America’s counties, an important sign of the breadth of support for the president,” said Dan Ronayne, a campaign spokesman.

Although the president can count on that support from Republicans, a CNN-Time poll released Friday showed that his job approval dropped eight percentage points since May, to 55 percent. A majority, 52 percent, said the president is doing a poor job of handling the economy, and 4 in 10 say the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq has been a success.

Newspapers and network news shows have relentlessly covered the president’s use of questionable intelligence to justify the war with Iraq, including a statement in his State of the Union address about Iraq’s efforts to buy uranium in Africa.

But that won’t slow the fund-raising pace. Mr. Bush heads to a Detroit fund-raiser Wednesday, and Vice President Dick Cheney will be in Nebraska tomorrow to chip in on the effort.

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