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Gary Younge
Money no object as the Bush fundraising juggernaut sets off

The Bushes have never had much problem raising money. They are well connected in politics and deeply embedded into the corporate world over generations, and money sticks to them like scandal stuck to the Clintons - partly because of what they do but largely because of who they are.

President Bush, however, has turned it into an art form. This week he kicks off a fund-raising binge during which he aims to collect $20m (£12m) in just two weeks - only slightly less than all the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls managed to raise in three months combined.

The following fortnight will see the president attend seven fundraisers, vice president Dick Cheney four, and first lady Laura Bush three. Bush-Cheney 04 Inc, the election committee they established less than a month ago, is hoping to set records in fundraising that both convince the Republican party base of his invincibility and intimidate the Democrats before they have even started.

Tomorrow he will be the guest of honour at a $2,000 a head reception at the Washington Hilton. After that he will head to Georgia, New York, and California, while his wife, Laura, and Mr Cheney concentrate primarily on swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

During the last elections Mr Bush broke the mould of presidential fundraising, forgoing public financing and the limits that come with it, and collecting more than $100m. For the next election, standing as an incumbent with audiences looking back on September 11 and ahead to the fruits of his tax cuts, he is looking to double his money. Nobody, in either party, doubts his ability to do so.

He could raise as much as $5m next week in New York in one night alone - $2m more than what is believed to be the record for the most successful fundraiser to date, held in the city by Mr Bush in 1999. The event, an evening reception at the New York Sheraton, will bring together leading lights in finance, insurance, law and construction.

"This thing is blown wide open," James Ortenzio, chairman of the Republican committee in Manhattan, told the New York Observer. "The response for this event, and the other Bush events, defies the political laws of physics."

Effortless

The beauty of it is that fundraising for Mr Bush is now virtually effortless: his presidential presence is sufficient to draw in donations. All his Republican supporters have to do is riffle through their rollerdexes in search of more phone numbers. "No one is turning down any calls or saying 'I don't want to contribute'," said one of Mr Bush's most active fund-raisers.

By contrast, raising money for Mr Bush's Democratic candidates is hard graft. "The fundamental difference is that Bush himself spends no time on it," Steve Elmendorf, a senior aide to Democratic hopeful Dick Gephardt who spends eight hours a day seeking contributions, told the New York Times. "He gets on a plane, shows up for 15 minutes, and leaves. And each of these [Democratic] candidates spends volumes of time on the phone asking for money."

The Republicans began asking for money two weeks after Mr Bush's prime time landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, in a Viking jet, to declare the war against Iraq had ended. "It's just a matter of finding someone who hasn't gotten calls from other people making calls."

In 2000 Mr Bush created a network of fundraisers who sought donations on his behalf. More than 200 people managed to collect at least $100,000 and earned themselves the title "pioneers", which facilitated their access to the higher reaches of the administration. This year they have created a new, higher rank for the chief money-makers - "rangers". They have pledged to raise at least $200,000. Top of the pile, however, remain the "regents" who can conjure up at least $250,000.

Democratic efforts pale by comparison, partly because there are so many candidates at this stage but also because their base is far poorer. Last Saturday Senator John Edwards, a Democratic contender from North Carolina, held a fundraiser for $50 a head in Raleigh, in his home state.

The Democrats may be forced to make Mr Bush's financial superiority an issue. "The way he raises money shows what kind of trouble democracy is in in this country," said Howard Dean, another Democratic presidential candidate.

"The Democrats have no choice but to try to make money Bush's liability," one Republican fundraiser told the New York Times. "They have to try to tie the money to special interests, tie the special interests to unpopular issues, and then tie it all around Bush's neck. The problem is that Democrats are taking special interest money, too."

Momentum

Money in American politics has its own momentum. Potential donors assess a candidate's viability not just by their standing in the polls but also by the size of their coffers.

Those who appear to have the best chance of winning then attract more money while those with less money lag behind or drop out. By racing ahead in fundraising so early, Mr Bush is making a statement about his intention to dominate the race. Such a strategy is not without problems. During the last election bad weather forced Mr Bush to miss an event at a school in Rhode Island. He did, though, make it to a $1,000 a head Republican bash that was next on his schedule. Seizing on the blunder, the Democratic challenger, Al Gore, rearranged his plans so he could go the school, leaving Mr Bush in disgrace. "You're getting a lot of attention at this school," Mr Gore told the children. "And you know why? Because your education is the most important thing to the people who came here."

Democrats hope that similar gaffes, allied to a strong campaign that motivates their base, could yet neutralise Mr Bush's cash advantage." It's no surprise to anyone that the money Bush raises is going to be off the charts," said Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson. "Does having these resources help him? Absolutely. Is it going to re-elect him president? That remains to be seen."

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