Bush Still Taps Into Wallets

Posted July 18, 2008 at 6:01pm

Far from the noise of Washington and the buzz of the campaign trail on Friday, a small fleet of helicopters coursed over the rolling hills of Northern California. The choppers were headed toward wine country, with those aboard destined for the Harlan Estate vineyard.

But the passengers, one of whom is perhaps the most famous teetotaler in the world, were not interested in sampling the winery’s offerings. Close to the ground and largely under the public’s radar, President Bush and his entourage were headed to Bill Harlan’s spread to soak some cash from his rich friends.

Bush is among the least popular presidents in modern history. Less than 30 percent of the population approves of the job he does. But he is prying open a lot of wallets.

According to a CBS News analysis by correspondent Mark Knoller — regarded as the most accurate tracker of presidential activities — Bush as of the end of June had raised $67 million for the GOP and its candidates this year, an average of $370,000 a day.

The sum is nearly 70 percent of what the presumptive Republican presidential candidate himself, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), has been able to amass. Former President Bill Clinton, perhaps the most famous — and infamous — fundraiser of all time, culled just over $100 million for Democrats in all of 2000.

While Bush is somewhat behind the even more torrid fundraising pace he set in 2006, Republicans point out that he is not working with a Congressional majority this year and that fat-cat checking accounts around the nation have already been depleted by the primaries.

Bush remains popular with some in the Republican base in a way that McCain is not. But small-town evangelicals and Main Street business owners are not necessarily the ones showing up at the ritzy private residences where Bush is raising lots of dough.

“He’s still the president,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist and Roll Call contributing writer. “Having that title has significant impact,” Winston said. Winston noted that many of those Bush is hitting up are people he has known for some time. “It’s a matter of getting to them and getting them to commit — giving that last push he’s able to provide.”

And push he must. McCain is being swamped in the money sweepstakes by his presumptive Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), and he desperately needs Bush’s help. Further, McCain has agreed to take public financing in the fall and will be limited to spending $84 million. So every penny Bush can raise for the Republican National Committee is another coin gathered to match the Obama juggernaut.

“You can expect to see the president being very active over the next few months,” White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said.

But like the choppers whirring above the Napa Valley on Friday, the unpopular president is performing his critical role well out of sight.

Nearly all of the 28 fundraising events he hosted in the first half of the year were closed to the press. Bush has not held a single campaign rally this year. Since he offered McCain his blessing at a White House meeting March 5, the two party leaders have been seen together publicly just once, for about a minute, after a May fundraiser in Arizona.

“Every presidential candidate has to stand on their own two feet and be judged on their own merits,” Stanzel said. Stanzel also noted that while many of the fundraisers were private affairs, Bush’s presence is obvious when he comes to town.

“Wherever he goes, he makes news,” Stanzel said. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”

Asked if Bush would appear again with McCain, Stanzel responded, “That remains to be seen.”