CRAWFORD, Texas — With more than $40 million already in his reelection campaign war chest, President Bush feted his most prolific fund-raisers Saturday at a private barbecue just four miles down a country lane from his ranch.
Because the gathering was technically not a fund-raiser, the White House barred reporters from the event. Other than the bustle at the Hickey Broken Spoke Ranch, the only public hint of the electioneering powwow was the dozens of private jets lined up on the tarmac of the normally quiet Waco Regional Airport. The jets had ferried the 350 or so Bush partisans to central Texas from around the country.
The president's guests, shuttled by buses to the party, each had helped collect at least $50,000 for the campaign by June 30.
The barbecue drew a protest from two groups that monitor fund-raising activities, Public Citizen and Texans for Justice, which said the event highlighted the access that big money continues to buy despite campaign finance reforms enacted by Congress -- and which Bush signed into law -- in recent years.
"These people are some of the smartest businessmen in America, and if they didn't continue to see a payback in their investment in the Bush campaign, they wouldn't continue to make these kinds of donations time after time," said Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen for the state of Texas.
He spoke to reporters a few miles from Bush's ranch. Behind him was an inflatable White House, marked with the sign: "White House for Sale."
"President Bush today is hiding his big donors behind plumes of barbecue smoke," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Justice.
A Bush campaign spokesman, Dan Ronayne, rejected such criticism. "People support the president because they appreciate his leadership," he said.
Bush hopes to raise at least $170 million for use in the primary campaign -- even though he faces no challenger for the Republican Party's nomination. Asked at his July 30 news conference what he intended to do with such funds, Bush snapped jauntily: "Just watch!" He plans to accept taxpayer money for the general election against the eventual Democratic nominee.
The midafternoon barbecue was held inside a huge six-peaked tent.
The attendees got a break from the searing heat of recent days, when temperatures soared well above the 100-degree mark, as an early afternoon rainstorm blew across the area.
The campaign served up barbecued ribs, sausage, brisket, beans, cole slaw, smoked turkey, chicken-fried steak with gravy, peppered-beef tenderloin wrapped in bacon, stuffed jalapenos, and a choice of peach or blackberry cobbler served with Blue Bell ice cream, a regional favorite.
The president's only public words Saturday were his weekly radio address, in which he urged Americans to be patient during the rebuilding of Iraq, as he spoke optimistically about its future.
While acknowledging that much remains to be done, "life is returning to normal for the Iraqi people," Bush said.
He added that Iraq is slowly reestablishing its economy, restoring basic services, and its leaders soon will begin drafting a constitution, to be followed by free elections.
Bush also said that Saddam Hussein's ouster has led to a safer America and Middle East.
"This long-term undertaking is vital to peace in the region and to the security of the United States," he said.
The president did not mention the massive car-bombing last week of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the ongoing American casualties in Iraq or the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction.
Bush is on his annual August working vacation at his Prairie Chapel Ranch.
On Monday, he is scheduled to visit Arizona and Colorado.
Associated Press contributed to this report.