The humor has a kernel of truth. The White House has been quietly dispatching Bush's surrogates, including the first lady, for smaller, lower-profile events, where possible, while keeping the president busy on a steady diet of bigger-money appearances that can be tucked into his schedule amid speeches and official trips.
Laura Bush, who brings high-dollar muscle but little of her husband's political baggage to the fundraising circuit, has collected cash for such moderate Republicans as Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, as well as conservatives in swing areas, such as Rep. Deborah Pryce of Columbus, Ohio.
Vice President Dick Cheney, another fundraising magnet, is a draw in conservative strongholds such as Tennessee, where he recently held a state party reception that was closed to the media.
Cheney also headlined a private, $1,000-a-ticket, $5,000-a- photograph reception for Steele last month at the home of the vice president's former aide, the Washington hostess Juleanna Glover Weiss. Even Bush's father has gotten into the act. Former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, headlined a reception for Steele this month at a Chevy Chase home.
Still, none can rival the fundraising potential of a presidential appearance, campaign specialists say.
State party officials would not disclose how much donors paid to attend this evening's event, but with 300 to 350 expected to attend, the average contribution would be in the thousands.
A presidential money stop turns out the party faithful who will pay large sums to have their pictures taken with Bush, without exposing him to a public forum where protesters could draw unfavorable attention.
"You can never be too rich, too thin or have too much money to spend on campaigns - you never have enough," said Jennifer E. Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report. "People who go to these fundraisers are obviously fine with Bush and the candidates he's raising money for."
Such events have Democrats fairly giddy at the prospect of highlighting their rivals' ties to Bush. Bush's "visit merely proves what we've been saying all along, which is Ehrlich and Steele are running on his coattails," said Artie Harris, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. "By taking money from his fundraising ... they're obviously endorsing his agenda, which most Marylanders disagree with."
For Republican candidates surveying a tough election-year landscape, however, Bush's popularity problems are only a secondary consideration - far behind the imperative of raising enough cash to mount a strong campaign, said Stephen Weissman, an analyst at the Campaign Finance Institute.
"If the president is fundraising for you, and he has a following among people who might give to you, then it pays - whether or not the president is at his zenith of popularity in your district" - to have him appear, Weissman said.