Beef tenderloin and a brouhaha

GOP fundraiser takes in millions, but Democrats accuse Bush of exploiting 9/11 for political gain.

The war on terror and other crises haven't prevented President Bush from tending to his night job as his party's fundraiser-in-chief. In fact, they may be helping him.

The annual GOP gala featuring the president this week raised $33 million – easily breaking the record for a single-night fundraiser set by former President Clinton two years ago.

But it also came amid accusations from Democrats that Mr. Bush was exploiting Sept. 11 for political purposes. An invitation to an upcoming congressional fundraiser offered donors three photos of the president, including one showing him on the phone with Vice President Dick Cheney from Air Force One on the morning of Sept. 11. The letter from Mr. Cheney called the fundraiser "an opportunity to honor President Bush for his courageous leadership during this historic time."

The controversy fuels the debate over what methods are appropriate in presidential fundraising. On the campaign trail, Bush criticized Mr. Clinton's practices, such as inviting donors for sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom. Last year, the Bush administration itself came under fire, when Cheney held a fundraiser at his official residence.

The Sept. 11 photo doesn't violate campaign laws. But analysts say it points to a longstanding fundraising tension, between legitimate efforts to draw on the president's achievements and exploiting the office to gain support. In the context of a tragedy such as Sept. 11 – which, the White House contends, was one of Bush's finest moments – the line may be almost impossible to draw.

"This is the first instance we know of a blatant attempt to use the images of 9/11 for political-fundraising purposes," says Steven Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. Mr. Weiss says the photos are not on par with giving donors rides on Air Force One – another Clinton fundraising technique. Still, he adds, "It's heading down the same path of using the trappings of the presidency ... for fundraising."

Both parties are under enormous pressure to raise as much money as possible this year, with control of Congress hanging in the balance. The fate of the president's agenda depends largely on whether the GOP can regain control of the Senate this fall, while maintaining its slim majority in the House – a fact Cheney acknowledged in his fundraising letter, writing: "Electing a Republican majority in the US Senate and expanding our Republican majority in the House is perhaps the most important service you can provide President Bush at this time."

THE parties have an additional incentive to raise large sums of cash, because the new campaign-finance laws banning unregulated campaign contributions – known as "soft money" – kick in after the November elections. Analysts say the GOP's record haul this week may stand for many years, given the new constraints.

Even before the photo controversy arose, there's been little doubt that Bush's wartime popularity is proving a financial boon. The Republican National Committee took in a record $31.7 million in the first three months of 2002, a figure that will be more than doubled by this week's intake. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) raised $26 million in the same period.

Bush has noticeably stepped up his fundraising activities in recent weeks, appearing on behalf of a number of congressional candidates in key states, particularly in the Midwest. Democrats have criticized some of these trips, noting that he often combines them with policy events, allowing the White House to partially fund the trips at taxpayers' expense – a practice for which Republicans condemned Clinton. Bush has conducted twice as many of these trips as Clinton had at this point in his presidency, says Jennifer Palmieri, a DNC spokeswoman.

But Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer rebuffed Democratic charges of impropriety, saying: "The Democrats are having a very difficult time coming to grips with the fact that this is a very popular president."

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