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Bush Stars in Push for $10M

Wed. Event Marks Start Of ’04 Fight

Even as he takes the wraps off his bid for a second term, President Bush will wade into the fight to keep the GOP in power on Capitol Hill by headlining a huge House-Senate Republican fundraiser Wednesday at the new Washington Convention Center.

Bush and first lady Laura Bush will be the stars of the event, which will benefit the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee. GOP officials hope to haul in $10 million to $12 million at the gathering, a tribute to Bush expected to focus heavily on his leadership during the Iraq conflict and the broader war on terrorism.

House and Senate GOP leaders will make full use of their political and fundraising operations in the hours leading up to Wednesday’s soiree.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), star of Florida’s contested presidential recount in 2000, are scheduled to address big NRCC donors, those who give up to $10,000 annually under the new campaign-finance rules, at a breakfast and lunch on Wednesday. NRSC donors, for their part, will get briefings from key GOP Senators on the state of legislative play in that chamber.

VIPs, in addition to a photo op with Bush and a commemorative watch, will have a meet-and-greet with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and other top GOP lawmakers at a cocktail reception prior to the dinner, the first major political event at the brand-new convention center.

Congressional Republicans hailed Bush’s decision to file papers with the Federal Election Commission to begin raising money for the 2004 race. While short of a formal re- election announcement, which is not expected for some time, if ever, it is the clearest sign yet that the White House considers the 2004 presidential race to have already begun.

“I am both grateful and proud that our president has decided to run again. I look forward to working with President Bush to ensure his re-election and the re-election of the Republican Congress,” said NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) in a statement released on Friday.

GOP insiders on Capitol Hill said that top White House officials tipped them off to the move, which has been expected for weeks, just before the White House filed with the FEC.

Democrats, meanwhile, were quick to criticize what they see as a White House that has never really shifted out of campaign mode since the 2000 presidential race.

“Now [Bush] can do what he really wants to do, which is all fundraisers all the time,” said Deborah DeShong, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

The White House on Friday also unveiled the first staffing moves for the re-election team, and Ken Mehlman, director of White House political affairs and a former House GOP staffer, is expected to be move over as early as this week to be campaign manager for the Bush-Cheney effort.

Mercer Reynolds, former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and a close political ally of the president, will be finance chairman, according to GOP insiders, while Jack Oliver, the No. 2 official at the Republican National Committee, will be deputy finance chairman. Bush may seek to raise as much as $250 million in his bid for a second term, according to GOP and Democratic strategists, easily shattering all previous fundraising records.

And the nascent Bush-Cheney campaign has begun working toward that goal, having sent out roughly 1 million fundraising letters over the weekend and into this week. While there were no estimates available on how much the Bush-Cheney campaign thought it could net from the mailing, one senior House GOP strategist predicted it would be “in the millions.”

RNC Chairman Marc Racicot is expected to be named campaign chairman soon, although White House officials are still searching for a replacement for him at the RNC. Well-known GOP lobbyist Ed Gillespie, a key aide from the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000, had been widely viewed as the top choice for that post. However, Republican insiders said Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, may instead go with an elected official for that job.

While the vaunted Bush money machine is just gearing up, senior White House officials have quietly begun to campaign on behalf of Republican Congressional candidates and incumbents. Those efforts, though, are not expected to be anywhere near the scale of the previous cycle.

Rove on Tuesday will appear at a $2,500-per-person fundraiser for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). That comes on top of an event he did last Thursday in Lexington, Ky., on behalf of Sen. Jim Bunning (R).

Rove also recently attended a fundraiser in late April for Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who wants to run for a Senate seat in the Tar Heel State. That event netted $650,000 for Burr, who is seeking the seat now held by Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

Rove was in Illinois last month as well, raising money for the state party and attempting to find a candidate to run for the the open seat of retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R). Despite the best efforts of Bush and Rove, they have yet to recruit a top-tier candidate for that race.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card did a recent fundraiser for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is facing a primary challenge from the more conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.). The event netted nearly $100,000 for Specter and left no doubt where Bush stands in a Senate campaign that could have a big impact on whether he wins a second term.

Both Rove and Card are expected to attend upcoming fundraisers for freshman Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), who barely won a tight race last year.

But Bush, like other incumbent presidents before him, will face a delicate balancing act between helping out members of the party facing tough races and focusing on his own re-election.

GOP strategists said that Bush, Vice President Cheney and Rove were cognizant of the issue during the 2001-02 election cycle as the president and top administration officials campaigned heavily for Republican Congressional candidates and incumbents.

Such efforts paid off in two ways for Bush — giving him political chits he could use to help advance his legislative agenda, while also deflecting some of the pressure he will face this cycle.

Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), incumbent retention director for the NRCC, said the White House, through Rove and Mehlman, has been highly receptive to requests from lawmakers who want senior officials to headline events for their campaigns. The efforts have focused “predominantly” on districts where there is the greatest need.

“That list is continually evolving,” Sweeney said.

While top White House officials such as Rove and Card have been in heavy demand, Sweeney said he “fully expects” that Bush and Cheney themselves will begin doing events for candidates as the elections pull closer.

“There’s an immense amount of goodwill, especially in the districts that are swing [districts],” Sweeney said, indicating that the White House has been especially open to requests for administration help in states where the president’s re-election interests overlap with those of the House Republicans, such as Florida. “They are really engaged,” Sweeny said.

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