Bush hits road, rolls up cash for GOP candidates

September 21, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

LOS ANGELES -- Appropriately enough, an accounting term comes to mind when fellow Republicans discuss President Bush's frequent political travels.

"He's a great asset . . . a terrific asset," gushes Pete Wilson, the GOP candidate for governor of California, and no wonder. Much of Mr. Wilson's potentially decisive financial advantage in the governor's race can be traced directly to Mr. Bush's efforts.

The president himself draws attention, in a self-deprecating way, to his status as the top-dollar attraction in U.S. politics, enhanced in recent weeks by intense public support for his Persian Gulf policies.

"The state chairman called and said it would be a big boost if our party's No. 1 asset came out to Colorado," Mr. Bush jokingly told GOP donors in Denver the other day. "I said, 'Sure. What time do you want Barbara to be there?' "

Democratic candidates aren't laughing, though, as they watch their Republican rivals chuckling their way to the bank.

"He's extraordinarily valuable to Republican candidates; I wouldn't lie about that," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman.

White House aides have even put a figure on Mr. Bush's worth as a political asset: $70 million.

That's how much money his appearances at GOP events across the country are said to have raised for Republican candidates and national and state party committees in the 1990 campaign cycle. And with dozens more events to come, the total could approach $100 million before he's through, aides say.

Mr. Bush, the first former national party chairman to serve as president, seems determined to set a White House record for partisan endeavors. But his cheerful willingness to endure mind-numbing banquetscenes is no guarantee of Republican success in November.

His popular predecessor, Ronald Reagan, was also a big GOP fund-raising lure. And during the last midterm campaign, in 1986, he stumped aggressively for Republican Senate candidates, only to watch the Senate fall to the Democrats on Election Day.

"Reagan did far more than any previous president, and it looks like Bush is going to do far more than Reagan," said Haley Barbour, a Republican national committeeman and former Reagan White House political director.

Mr. Bush has taped dozens of endorsement commercials and posed for photographs with hundreds of GOP candidates. His visits to at least 20 states have generated invaluable free publicity and, perhaps, a short-term blip up in the polls for local GOP candidates.

But it is his allure to heavyweight contributors, the ones who give anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000, that makes him particularly valuable, especially at a time when a slumping economy is drying up donations in parts of the country.

This week, the GOP's greatest asset met its top political priority of 1990: the California governor's race. With seven new congressional seats, and nearly one-tenth of the electoral votes in the next presidential election, California is crucial to Republican prospects for the remainder of the century, and to Mr. Bush's own re-election.

In the ballroom of a Los Angeles hotel, where more than 900 Republicans paid $1,000 each to see Mr. Bush, the manager of the Wilson campaign, Otto Bos, gazed contentedly at the crowd of well-dressed, wealthy and white supporters.

"We oversold this place. I don't have a seat," he boasted.

After brief introductions, Mr. Bush delivered a prepared speech, reading from the traveling TelePrompTer that allows him to customize his remarks to the local candidate at each stop with a minimum of preparation.

For 20 minutes, Mr. Bush mixed praise for Mr. Wilson with a defense of his own Persian Gulf policies. Then, without staying for the meal, he was on his way.

The estimated haul for about 67 minutes of quality presidential time: $1.1 million. The next afternoon, the routine was repeated at a hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco, netting another $800,000.

In five visits to California this election year (more are planned), Mr. Bush has raised about $3.5 million for the Wilson campaign, officials said. That represents the bulk of the $6 million spending advantage the Republican is expected to enjoy over Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the closely contested governor's race.

The advent of the Persian Gulf crisis has yet to curtail Mr. Bush's political itinerary, though the recent two-day swing through Colorado and California had been rescheduled from the previous week because of his report to Congress Sept. 11 on the Helsinki summit.

The midterm campaign should not "be held hostage to a crisis," said Mr. Bush, who plans to hit the road for three days of politicking a week, on average, between now and Nov. 6.

Largely absent from Mr. Bush's recent campaign performances, however, have been the usual sharp partisan attacks on liberal Democrats. That has prompted back-room complaints from some Republicans who would like to see him bash the opposition party and feed the undercurrent of anti-Washington feeling prevalent in the country these days, which could help the GOP.

Aides say Mr. Bush is pulling his rhetorical punches to preserve Democratic support for his gulf policy and because of the delicate budget talks under way in Washington.

On at least recent two occasions, an aide said, Mr. Bush toned down anti-Democratic language in his speech texts after meeting with Democratic budget negotiators. Things could well change, the aide cautioned, in the closing weeks of the campaign, after the budget talks are finished and more voters start thinking about the election.

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