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Hastert Leads Drive for Bush

Calling for a gesture of solidarity with the White House at the onset of the 2004 campaign, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Wednesday cut a $1,000 check to President Bush’s re-election campaign and urged all House Republicans to follow suit.

The unusual pitch to help Bush, who is expected to raise at least $200 million on his own, reflected the Congressional GOP’s gratitude toward the president. His work on the campaign trail is widely credited with solidifying the party’s hold on Congress in 2002.

But a senior Hastert aide suggested the Speaker’s proposal, which came at Wednesday’s private GOP Conference meeting, was also a signal to the White House that Bush and his Republican brethren on Capitol Hill share interlocking destinies.

“We want to show it’s a two-way street,” Hastert spokesman John Feehery said after the meeting. “The president did a lot for us in the last election, and [the pitch to Members] shows what kind of team we are.”

Hastert’s gesture came even as House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) made a last appeal to Members for contributions to the Retain Our Majority Program — better known as ROMP — before Blunt distributes the first round of checks today at the Capitol Hill Club. The money will go to 10 of the party’s most threatened incumbents ahead of the critical June 30 filing deadline.

Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor said that as of Wednesday ROMP had collected $1.1 million from Members, surpassing the goal set by the Whip of $1 million.

“Mr. Blunt did point out this morning how good the House Republicans are at taking care of their own,” Taylor said.

Among the incumbents being targeted for help are Reps. Jeb Bradley (N.H.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Tom Cole (Okla.), Randy Forbes (Va.), Robin Hayes (N.C.), John Kline (Minn.), Tom Latham (Iowa), Anne Northup (Ky.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.).

Bush’s campaigns have previously received help from Capitol Hill. Reps. Joe Barton (Texas) and Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) were both members of the seed group of fundraisers, known as the Pioneers, who each raised at least $100,000 for the first Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000. Both have indicated that they are eager to lend their assistance again this cycle.

Still, given that Republicans are hoping for a generous helping hand from Bush in the next election, Hastert’s pitch for contributions to the president’s re-election campaign would seem somewhat counter-intuitive. This is all the more so considering that Bush is expected to raise a humongous sum of money for himself without the aid of federal matching funds.

Feehery said the White House had not solicited the Speaker’s help in raising money.

Even some close Bush allies were bewildered by Hastert’s plea.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a Bush confidant, said he doesn’t plan to contribute to Bush’s campaign, preferring to direct his gifts to needy GOP Senate candidates and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“The president’s a pretty good fundraiser on his own,” Gregg said wryly.

In fact, no similar pitch has been made to GOP Senators by their leadership. But Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) indicated Wednesday that he liked the idea and might ask his colleagues to make donations to the president.

Some Senators have not needed a plea for cash. Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that he had already reached into his own wallet for a donation of $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney effort.

“I usually don’t do that,” McConnell said, referring to making the contributions from his personal bank account.

Asked why he hadn’t just made the donation from his leadership political action committee, the Bluegrass Committee, McConnell responded, “Maybe I’ll do that, too.”

Frist said he did not think he has made a contribution yet to the Bush campaign from his leadership PAC. But upon quick reflection he added, “Now that you mention it, I’d better… quickly.”

While Republican Congressional campaign officials have indicated that they expect help from Bush this cycle, they have also generally acknowledged that such support is likely to be incidental rather than direct.

For instance, the president could bring valuable attention to incumbents and key GOP candidates whose states or districts include the constituencies Bush’s re-election campaign is trying to reach.

Among the states expected to be prominent in the itinerary are those in the cluster that extends from Pennsylvania in the Northeast through Minnesota in the Midwest — several of which Bush lost narrowly to his 2000 opponent, Al Gore.

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