WASHINGTON — When President Bush walks into this city's sparkling new convention center tonight for his first fund-raising appearance since the Iraq war, he will do more than mark an early moment in the 2004 election season. He will also prove a compelling political equation: Bush equals money.
The president and First Lady Laura Bush are the guests of honor at an annual Republican event where, amid purple festooning and plates of filet mignon, he will help bring in an expected $10 million.
The proceeds in this case will jointly benefit the Republican House and Senate campaign committees, which will oversee the party's battle next year to maintain its narrow edge in both chambers of Congress.
But the gala dinner also will offer an early look at a popular president about to blend his roles as commander in chief and hot-ticket campaigner.
"Even though the money being raised is for congressional candidates and not for the presidential reelection, this event sends a very strong message to the political community about the extent of Bush's political and fund-raising strength," said Dan Schnur, a GOP strategist in Sacramento. "In its own way, this dinner is as much a kickoff to next year's campaign as the president's landing on the decks of the [aircraft carrier] Abraham Lincoln."
Bush set a record in 2000 when he raised more than $100 million as he won the GOP nomination in a crowded field. Last year, his lucrative fund-raising helped the party hold the House and reclaim the Senate. And the fund-raising goal for his reelection campaign is a stratospheric $200 million.
Tonight's soiree is the first of more to come in the election season ahead. But the timing of this one -- a dinner held every spring since 1975 -- couldn't have been more fortuitous, showcasing a president flush with the quick rout of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Against that backdrop, "when the president walks into a room, the room fills up with money," said Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
And "hard" money at that, in the parlance of political fund-raising. The controversial campaign-finance law passed last year banned "soft money" contributions -- the unlimited dollars that could be donated to national political parties. That law may be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, but for now, fund-raising can focus only on the limited contributions known as hard money -- donations of no more than $2,000 per individual or $5,000 per political action committee.
The GOP has long proven itself better at raising hard money -- a political reality Bush will demonstrate tonight, surrounded by about 5,000 check-writing supporters and serenaded by the Oak Ridge Boys. In exchange for their contributions, donors will get a photo opportunity with the president and a commemorative watch.
Democrats concede that the president's fund-raising prowess will leave them outspent. "It's the beginning of the juggernaut," said Democratic strategist Leslie Dach.
But Democrats also quickly add that money alone does not win elections.
"President Bush and the Republicans will certainly out-raise the Democrats in 2004.... But $100 million, $200 million or $500 million, the president can't raise enough money to hide the fact his economic policy has been a complete failure and 2.7 million people have lost jobs on his watch," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
One potential downside as Bush wades into the fund-raising pool is that he opens himself to criticism by foes that he is exploiting his wartime popularity for partisan gain.
"This preview of his financial muscle will be welcomed by Republicans, but Democrats will use it as an opportunity to take a shot at him as fund-raiser-in-chief in a time of war," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington.
But GOP officials are banking on the belief that the public will overlook an occasional trip to the stump at this point, as long as it doesn't appear to monopolize the presidential agenda.
"The statue of Saddam [Hussein] fell six weeks ago," one GOP strategist said. "This is an appropriate time to do a political event."
With the new campaign finance law under judicial review, no one is certain which rules will ultimately prevail. The safest strategy is to strike early and raise as much money as possible.
Bush's popularity "can only go down between now and the election," said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan campaign analyst in Washington.
And the time for House and Senate candidates to cash in on high presidential poll ratings is now, before he turns his focus to his own reelection.
Said Cook: "They gotta get while the gettin's good."