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Keeping Bush at a distance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush arrives in the Baltimore area this evening to raise campaign money for Maryland Republicans, one potential beneficiary won't be there to greet him.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, whose Senate bid stands to gain from the $1 million-plus that Bush's appearance is expected to draw, will be at a Las Vegas, Nev., fundraiser, instead.

Steele joins a growing list of Republican candidates who are declining a chance to be seen with the president in this election year, even as they rely on the hefty amounts of campaign cash that Bush attracts as his party's biggest draw.

This month, two Republican House members stood Bush up at fundraisers in their backyards. Virginia Rep. Thelma Drake's office said she had to cast a vote in Congress during the president's stop at a fundraiser in Hampton Roads, Va., while Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon skipped Bush's Philadelphia fundraiser last week, telling The Wall Street Journal that Bush was doing so poorly in his state that he wouldn't rely on his help.

Despite his diminished popularity, Bush posts formidable fundraising gains for his party: some $124 million since his re-election, said Aaron McLear, a GOP spokesman. A gala that Bush headlined this month in Washington brought in $17 million.

This evening's event, a cocktail reception at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport Marriott to benefit the state Republican Party, is set to raise more than $1 million, which would be a record, said Audra Miller, a party spokeswoman.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking re-election, plans to attend, unbowed by Bush's tarnished image in the state. "Obviously, any time that the president offers to lend his voice to an event, it's an opportunity for the party," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.

Steele spokesman Doug Heye said the lieutenant governor had "a long-standing previous commitment" to attend a fundraising event for his campaign. The reception, which will benefit several Senate Republican candidates, is to be held at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, hosted by Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, according to a Republican aide who knows about it and who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is a private event.

Steele's no-show at the Bush event comes as he has been working to distance himself from the president. This month, when Bush refused to extend the May 15 deadline for seniors to enroll in the Medicare prescription drug program, Steele broke with the president to call for a reprieve, saying that refusing to give seniors more time suggests the kind of "inside-the-Beltway mentality" he would change if elected.

Heye denied that Steele was trying to avoid Bush, dismissing his absence tonight as a scheduling conflict.

Six months ago, Bush helped Steele raise $500,000 at a midday reception at M&T; Bank Stadium. This time, Steele's campaign is quick to point out, Bush is stopping in the state on behalf of the party, not the lieutenant governor. But Steele would be one of several Maryland Republicans eligible to receive the money that the state party collects tonight.

Bush's poll numbers have slipped among Republican voters, but he continues to be in demand as a fundraiser. White House officials say they field about a half-dozen requests a week for fundraising appearances.

"We currently have more campaign requests for both incumbents and challengers for the president's time than we actually have space on his calendar," said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman.

Republican officials say Bush is packing more money stops into his schedule than he did in 2002, when his barnstorming was credited with boosting his party's midterm gains. But that success came before the war in Iraq and before Bush's approval ratings sank into the low 30's - factors which some Republicans fear could drag down their chances in the November election.

Bush "can still raise the money - he's still the biggest draw on the Republican side," said Candice J. Nelson, an American University campaign finance specialist. These days, though, Nelson added, "The candidates would like him to come and raise money for them, but not to be associated with him politically."

Republican concern about losing control of Congress is growing, giving Bush good reasons to zigzag the country helping his party drum up cash, analysts said.

A net loss of six seats would cost Republicans control of the Senate. A Steele victory for the seat of Maryland's retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes would make it that much harder for Democrats to take over.

The president often opens his fundraising speeches with self-deprecating jokes that acknowledge his potentially toxic image. They usually involve the far more popular Laura Bush, who Bush likes to say is the bigger draw.

Kentucky Republican Rep. Geoff Davis "really wanted Laura. He said, 'You stay at home, Mr. President,'" Bush said at a recent reception for the first-term congressman. "Yes, next time. Unfortunately, she was tied up."

The humor has a kernel of truth. The White House has been quietly dispatching Bush's surrogates, including the first lady, for smaller, lower-profile events, where possible, while keeping the president busy on a steady diet of bigger-money appearances that can be tucked into his schedule amid speeches and official trips.

Laura Bush, who brings high-dollar muscle but little of her husband's political baggage to the fundraising circuit, has collected cash for such moderate Republicans as Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, as well as conservatives in swing areas, such as Rep. Deborah Pryce of Columbus, Ohio.

Vice President Dick Cheney, another fundraising magnet, is a draw in conservative strongholds such as Tennessee, where he recently held a state party reception that was closed to the media.

Cheney also headlined a private, $1,000-a-ticket, $5,000-a- photograph reception for Steele last month at the home of the vice president's former aide, the Washington hostess Juleanna Glover Weiss. Even Bush's father has gotten into the act. Former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, headlined a reception for Steele this month at a Chevy Chase home.

Still, none can rival the fundraising potential of a presidential appearance, campaign specialists say.

State party officials would not disclose how much donors paid to attend this evening's event, but with 300 to 350 expected to attend, the average contribution would be in the thousands.

A presidential money stop turns out the party faithful who will pay large sums to have their pictures taken with Bush, without exposing him to a public forum where protesters could draw unfavorable attention.

"You can never be too rich, too thin or have too much money to spend on campaigns - you never have enough," said Jennifer E. Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report. "People who go to these fundraisers are obviously fine with Bush and the candidates he's raising money for."

Such events have Democrats fairly giddy at the prospect of highlighting their rivals' ties to Bush. Bush's "visit merely proves what we've been saying all along, which is Ehrlich and Steele are running on his coattails," said Artie Harris, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. "By taking money from his fundraising ... they're obviously endorsing his agenda, which most Marylanders disagree with."

For Republican candidates surveying a tough election-year landscape, however, Bush's popularity problems are only a secondary consideration - far behind the imperative of raising enough cash to mount a strong campaign, said Stephen Weissman, an analyst at the Campaign Finance Institute.

"If the president is fundraising for you, and he has a following among people who might give to you, then it pays - whether or not the president is at his zenith of popularity in your district" - to have him appear, Weissman said.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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