WASHINGTON - In a lucrative 90-minute visit to a St. Louis convention center, President Bush schmoozed with Republican donors last night and raked in $2.8 million for his re-election effort, expanding his fund-raising dominance over Democratic rivals.
The Bush-Cheney '04 team will officially release its new fund-raising figures this week. But campaign aides say privately that the largesse, even before last night's fund-raiser, exceeds $120 million. That total easily shatters the record for cash raised in a presidential primary season, set by Bush in 2000.
That year, Bush collected $106 million for his campaign in the primaries. This year, Bush has no Republican challenger but more money to spend between now and the nominating conventions this summer - a fact that does not bode well for the eventual Democratic nominee.
Campaign aides and political analysts say Bush is preparing to run a barrage of television ads and to continue building a grass-roots network, with the intent of pummeling the Democratic front-runner as soon as one emerges, likely well before the conventions.
Charles Black, a veteran Republican strategist and informal White House adviser, said Bush hopes to borrow a tactic used by President Bill Clinton. During his 1996 re-election effort, Clinton spent millions of dollars on ads attacking his eventual Republican challenger, Bob Dole, well before Dole was formally chosen as the GOP nominee and could tap federal election money.
"Clinton basically took Dole out of the race at a time when Dole was out of money," said Black, who expects television ads from the Bush camp to begin running as early as next month.
Determined to avoid that pitfall, two of the president's Democratic rivals - former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the early front-runner, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts - have opted out of the public financing system, which provides federal matching funds to presidential candidates who accept a cap on their spending for the primaries. That means that Dean and Kerry are free to spend as much as they can raise.
Bush, too, has bypassed the public financing system, as he did in 2000, freeing him to exploit his larger campaign trove through the summer.
Black, echoing Bush campaign aides, said the president is justified in raising so much money as a way to counter expected attacks from well-funded, liberal-leaning interest groups.
"We need the money for self-defense," Black said.
The president's Missouri fund-raiser last night was his first of three scheduled for this week - all in states he barely won in 2000. On Thursday, he will speak at a fund-raising lunch in Tennessee before flying to an evening reception in South Florida.
While Bush raises the bulk of the money, he is getting plenty of help. Over the next few weeks, former President George H.W. Bush will headline fund-raisers for his son in New Mexico, California and Nevada. Vice President Dick Cheney will raise money in Colorado. Cheney's wife, Lynne, has been dispatched to Missouri and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans to Vermont to tap donors.
The Bush campaign is well on the way to hitting - and perhaps blowing past - its target of $170 million for the primary season. The campaign has spent a small portion of its cash to build a 140-member staff at its headquarters in Arlington, Va., to begin gathering voter lists around the country and to recruit a volunteer army to distribute campaign signs and encourage new voters to support the president.
Volunteers have been showing up at such places as swearing-in ceremonies for immigrants, who have been approached just after becoming U.S. citizens and urged to vote for the president.
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who studies presidential campaigns, suggested that Bush's fund-raising muscle would give his team the freedom and time to recruit minority voters, build formidable campaign machines in closely fought swing states and at least test the president's appeal in states that seem like long shots.
"They might say, 'We didn't think we could win California, but with all this money, let's try,'" Tenpas said. Meanwhile, she said, Bush's Democratic opponent "may have no money to blow."
Even as volunteers have distributed Bush-Cheney '04 posters and bumper stickers around the country and Bush himself has stood to address donors under campaign banners and near ice sculptures of the GOP elephant, the president has cast himself as above the political fray.
Asked several days ago what his New Year's resolution was, Bush said nothing of winning another term. He said he hoped to rehabilitate his injured knee.
"I miss running," the president said, referring strictly to physical fitness.