Bush Still Raising Money for Candidates, But No Pictures Please
The Republican presidential candidates may not be cozying up to him, but President Bush remains a draw on the party fundraising circuit. Bush made stops on the way to and from a weekend trip to his ranch near Crawford, Tex., to pull in big bucks from moneyed Republicans who are sticking with him despite bad poll numbers.
The two events brought his total for the year to 22 fundraisers for a grand take of $59,855,000, according to the invaluable Mark Knoller of CBS News, unofficial archivist of the White House, not counting the take from a National Republican Senatorial Committee event in July that the committee will not reveal. But if the Republican candidates are eager for the cash Bush can raise, they are not all that excited about being too public about it; so far, 14 of the Bush fundraisers this year have been closed to the press.
Still, the White House wanted to emphasize that Republicans are still willing to pony up big bucks to see the president, even if he has the support of just 33 percent of the public in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Bush plans to hit the trail a lot as the congressional campaigns for 2008 begin to heat up and will eventually help whoever emerges as the party's nominee for president, assuming he is asked. "I think you can expect to see him doing a lot more," said deputy White House press secretary Tony Fratto. "People want to see him speak, and he's the leader of the party, and I think you'll see him out there helping to raise money for our candidates and for the parties so that they can be competitive in elections next year."
For all of Bush's political liabilities, incumbency still offers a powerful tool for fundraising. The trappings of the presidency -- flying into the local airport aboard Air Force One, closing down streets for the three-dozen-vehicle motorcade, bringing along the entourage of Secret Service agents, staff aides and journalists -- are hard to resist for the party faithful. Even during his worst moments of scandal, President Bill Clinton remained a powerful fundraising attraction and Bush too continues to help the bank accounts of his party even if not as much as he might have been able to if times were better.
Bush's first fundraiser in this latest sprint was Friday morning at the Pinellas Park, Fla., home of Brent Sembler, a shopping mall developer and son of longtime Bush financier Mel Sembler. About 60 people spent less than two hours with the president behind closed doors at the lakefront home, for which most of them paid $25,000 apiece. All told, Republicans said the event raised $1 million for the national party. Several dozen protesters who waited for Bush's arrival at the airport were kept out of sight.
The Semblers have a long history with the Bush family. Mel Sembler was a key fundraiser for George H.W. Bush dating back to 1979, when he first ran for president, and later served as co-chairman of the inaugural committee when the elder Bush finally was sworn in as commander in chief in 1989. Sembler was rewarded with a cushy diplomatic post as ambassador to Australia. He later served as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and when George W. Bush after took the White House, Sembler was again rewarded handsomely, this time with appointment as ambassador to Italy.
Brent Sembler has yet to win a high diplomatic posting, but give him time. As vice chairman of the Sembler Company, which builds shopping malls throughout central Florida, Sembler has become a major party fundraiser in his own right. He served as finance chairman for Gov. Charlie Crist and is now working to help former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
Bush made another stop yesterday on his way back to Washington, touching down in Memphis to raise $600,000 for Sen. Lamar Alexander's reelection campaign. The president helped out Alexander even though the Tennessee Republican opposed Bush's veto of a $35 billion expansion of a children's health insurance program and has sponsored legislation intended to begin shifting away from Bush's strategy in Iraq.
The $1,000-a-head event was held at the home of businessman R. Brad Martin, though marred somewhat by a torrential downpour. Once again, about 50 protesters were held out of sight at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum and the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that the president's motorcade took an odd detour that kept Bush from having to pass anywhere near the demonstrators. Martin retired in May as chairman of the board of Saks Inc. and previously served in the Tennessee legislature.
So far, no one has announced a challenge to Alexander, but Democrat Mike McWherter, a lawyer, beer distributor and son of former governor Ned McWherter, is contemplating a bid. He has accused Alexander of being too close to Bush. True or not, Alexander and Bush appeared in no news pictures together yesterday that we could find.
-- Peter Baker
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