WASHINGTON KTB — WASHINGTON -- Sooner or later the statesman-president has to get down in the trenches and do the grubby stuff of politics -- ask for money.
For President Bush, it's going to be sooner. On Thursday he's going to politick in Houston, between trips to Madrid and Rome, and Democratic leaders fear that he's going to clean out the limited federal funds available for presidential primaries.
Thanks to reduced $1 check-offs by taxpayers, only $17 million in public matching funds will be available in January for candidates who have raised $100,000 in small contributions, and those who qualify early are the most likely to get their share.
The explanation Bush advisers prefer is that if the president collects his money in 1991, he will not compete with other Republican candidates next year for the $5,000 contributions individuals are allowed to make each year to federal candidates.
Whatever the reason, within hours after he returns to the United States from the Middle East peace conference in Madrid and two days before he leaves for a NATO summit in Rome, Mr. Bush will be in Texas raising money.
Although a formal announcement of their candidacy is not expected until early next year, Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle will be co-hosts of a $1,000-a-plate dinner in Mr. Bush's adopted hometown Thursday night. Two equally pricey fund-raisers are scheduled to follow on Friday night: one in Dallas featuring the president and a second with Mr. Quayle in Indianapolis.
The goal is to quickly collect the $30 million or so Mr. Bush expects to need for the primaries, according to Robert B. Holt, the Midland, Texas, oilman who is serving as chairman of the national Bush-Quayle finance committee.
With two more Bush-Quayle soirees scheduled for Nov. 12 in New York and Nov. 20 in Washington, along with mail solicitations about to begin all over the country, Mr. Holt figures that the re-election campaign should reach its goal by March.
The timing of the fund raising is awkward for Mr. Bush. It comes in the midst of nearly four weeks of foreign travel for which he is already being criticized as a president too busy with diplomatic matters to take care of pressing domestic concerns.
With contributions running short from the $1 check-off on federal income tax returns, the Treasury Department determined earlier this year that reserves must be conserved to cover the cost of the two national political conventions and the general election campaign.
About $10.6 million each for the conventions has already been paid, leaving a fund balance of $127 million, according to Sharon Snyder, a spokeswoman for the Federal Election Commission. Of that amount, $110 million is being held for the post-convention season, when it will be divided equally between the two presidential nominees.
That leaves about $17 million that will become available in January for primary candidates who have qualified by raising at least $100,000 on their own by Dec. 7. The money must come in individual donations of $250 or less from at least 20 different states, with a total of at least $5,000 per state.
In January, eligible campaigns will receive a 100 percent match for what they have raised by early December. But in February and March, the Treasury Department has determined that the match may have to be pro-rated downward to perhaps 75 percent or less until the fund can be replenished in April with contributions from 1991 tax returns.
"It's not fair," said James P. Desler, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, which is trying to get Congress to resolve the cash-flow problem in the public fund. "February and March are very important fund-raising months for challengers, but they won't get as much back for their money."
The House is expected to vote today on an amendment to a supplemental appropriations bill that would order the Treasury Department to match all eligible contributions at 100 percent even if it has to borrow against anticipated tax revenue.