WASHINGTON — On a typical day, George W. Bush's schedule looks something like this: 9:20 a.m. departs White House. Attends 2002 Georgia Unit Luncheon. Remarks on education at elementary school in Florida. Remarks via satellite to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce National Convention. Attends Republican Party of Florida reception. Returns to White House 9:10 p.m.
It's a packed day (last Thursday, to be exact), heavy on politics and big for the Republican bottom line. Though the schedule doesn't say so, the luncheon and reception were fundraisers that brought in $1.7 million. Year to date, President Bush has already smashed fundrais- ing records by helping his party pull in more than $140 million. And between now and election day, Nov. 5, he'll hopscotch around the country to some 15 states, hitting key spots like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia more than once.
It is a feat of political derring-do unprecedented in America, even by President Clinton, who was pummeled by critics including Mr. Bush for being too political. What makes Bush's achievement more extraordinary is that it comes largely below the public radar and apparently at no cost to his approval rating, which remains above 60 percent.
"Bush's fundraising record will be hard to break," says Norman Ornstein, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute here. "The most astonishing thing is, here we've brought the entire world to a halt to deal with Iraq, plus terrorism, the Middle East, and North Korea and the president is taking 12 days out of Washington to campaign. No one has called him to account."
The White House says Bush is largely finished with fundraising and will now focus on getting out the vote. And when the president speaks at events, he addresses current issues the economy, terrorism, Iraq, says spokeswoman Claire Buchan. She sees synergy, not conflict, in this blending of the official and the political. The White House refutes charges that political travel is a distraction from important matters; next Friday, for example, Bush will host China's president at the ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The White House's refrain is that he can fulfill his duties wherever he is with the full resources of his office. In addition, says Ms. Buchan, "he believes that electing good candidates to office is a critical component of the democratic process. The president hopes he will have people in Congress who will work with him, who share his agenda."
She acknowledges that part of the cost of political travel is covered by the taxpayers, who pay for Secret Service protection and Air Force One no matter what the president is doing as in previous administrations.
Critics partly blame the press for not holding the White House and Bush more accountable for being so political at a time of grave national concern. The White House, for its part, has worked to keep the press away from fundraisers, barring even pool coverage of many events. In a way, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have provided the president with cover. "The American people don't want to hear that their president is anything but commander in chief," says Mr. Ornstein.
Indeed, Bush's post-9/11 honeymoon with the public continues. He is held blameless for security and intelligence lapses that led to 9/11, as well as for last summer's corporate scandals. Even in states where Democrats are doing well in this fall's political contests, such as Michigan and Massachusetts, polls pitting Bush against Al Gore in a 2004 presidential matchup show Bush winning easily.
The challenge for Bush, eager for the GOP to capture control of Congress, is to grow coattails that could help sweep Republicans into office. So far, he doesn't seem to have them. Aware that races will turn on local issues, the president is trying to localize his message: As he stumps even for state-legislature candidates, he'll cite local statistics designed to show how new tax cuts have helped.
For Bush, keeping politics below the radar is easier than it was for Clinton, in part because of the donors Republicans attract. While Clinton turned out the Hollywood crowd, which caught media attention, GOP fundraisers attract anonymous businessmen. And Bush has avoided the scandals that dogged Clinton, including illegal foreign donations and donor overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Still, observers see striking similarities between Bush and Clinton. For one, they both seem to enjoy fundraising and pressing the flesh. Clinton embraced it as a presidential duty, not something to be swept under the rug. Bush is taking the fundraiser-in-chief role to the next level.
"The question voters have to ask is, what's the price for all this?" says Larry Noble, executive director of Washington's Center for Responsive Politics and former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. "No doubt all this fundraising raises the appearance that big donors will want something in return."
And even if this fall's fundraising frenzy seems the last blast before new restrictions take effect on Nov. 6, campaign-finance experts say the money will just flow into the political stream in different ways. And the president will still be in the middle of it.