Bush's popularity at record low, but he's still hot on Republican fundraising circuit
President Bush's popularity has tanked, but boy can he still bring in the cash.
He's raked in close to a billion dollars, the political fundraiser in chief, during his White House tenure.
In all, Bush has personally raised more than $968 million for the Republican Party, GOP candidates and his own re-election campaign and inauguration during his two terms in office. And he's not finished.
He's now lost a big part of the national spotlight to presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama, but he remains a formidable force on the fundraising circuit, mostly at private affairs closed to the media. His total so far this year is roughly $70 million.
Bush spent 90 minutes recently at a California winery tucked in a hillside in Napa Valley to help wring $850,000 from deep-pocket donors. That's $9,444 a minute.
Out of political expedience, McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, is generally keeping his distance — at least physically — from an unpopular incumbent who's burdened with war, soaring fuel prices and a sputtering economy.
Bush embraced McCain as the party's next standard bearer in the Rose Garden in March, saying, "I can help raise him money, and if he wants my pretty face standing by his side at one of these rallies, I'd be glad to show up."
Since then, the only time they have been seen together in public was after a fundraiser on May 27 in Phoenix. The two men shook hands on the airport tarmac and smiled and waved at reporters before Bush boarded Air Force One. The goodbye lasted less than a minute.
These days the White House is being careful not to step on McCain's message or schedule back-to-back events in the same city. Bush advisers aren't saying — and might not know — whether the two will appear again together between now and Election Day.
Still, McCain knows he needs the cash Bush can provide to keep pace with Obama, who is setting fundraising records. Bush can raise money directly for McCain only until the Republican National Convention, which starts Sept. 1 in Minneapolis. After that, McCain's decision to accept $84 million in public funds in the fall will leave him reliant for additional cash on money raised and donated by the GOP. But Bush can help there, too.
"The only way for McCain and the Republican Party to play catch-up is to raise for the RNC and use President Bush as the attraction," said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic consultant who has worked on various presidential campaigns. "I think he's a bigger fundraising draw than McCain among the Republican hard core."
Bush's fundraising schedule has slowed in August. He went to China for the Olympics, and later he will be relaxing at his Texas ranch and lying low during the Democratic National Convention. Things will pick up again in September and October when Bush, despite his job approval rating of under 30 percent, will be deployed to help GOP House and Senate candidates, or energize voters in tight races.
"For the candidates, there are pluses that Bush brings and difficulties," said GOP pollster David Winston. "The plus is that he can raise money. The difficulty is that he brings his job approval with him, and people are going to have to figure out how to effectively balance that out as they look at their own situation."
Last year, Bush brought in $66.3 million in a tour that focused on party fundraisers and events to benefit candidates in two House races and nine Senate races in mostly Republican-friendly states such as Kentucky, Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas and Nebraska.
Some candidates don't want Bush's help. But GOP officials say that others figure they are going to have to counter Democratic claims that they are aligned with Bush whether they accept the president's fundraising help or not. Might as well have money to help counter the claims.
This year, Bush has shifted his focus to House candidates and non-incumbents. He's helped relatively unknown House candidates such as Tim Bee in Arizona, Aaron Schock in Illinois and Darren White in New Mexico. On the Senate side, he's raised cash for Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who was just appointed in January and needed to build a war chest, and for John Kennedy, a candidate in Louisiana who was a Democrat until last year and needed an infusion of campaign money.
The are 11 governor races this year. Bush has been tapped to help only Pat McCrory, the GOP candidate in North Carolina, although political insiders suspect Bush still might be brought in to try to seal Republican victories in such contested states as Missouri, Washington or Indiana.
Incumbent presidents often are big draws on the fundraising circuit. In his last year in office, Bill Clinton attended 203 fundraisers that made more than $105 million, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS News White House correspondent who keeps informal statistics on presidential fundraising.
George H.W. Bush's image rebounded during President Clinton's impeachment fight. Clinton himself remains an attraction, and he spent months helping raise cash for wife Hillary Rodham Clinton's unsuccessful bid for the White House.
Bush remains popular among loyal Republicans and they will be likely to pay money to see him and seek his political views on upcoming races, said Josh Israel, who studies the role of money in presidential politics at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington. "But I think if his current popularity ratings continue to be low, it's going to be tough to find people who are really eager to go to him for help," Israel said.
Bush's future on the fundraising circuit depends on whether McCain or Obama wins the election, said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.
"Until somebody else emerges as the party leader, the former guy is going to be a big draw," he said.
Associated Press writers Sharon Theimer and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.