NASHVILLE — Sitting on a stool, microphone in hand, President Bush shared a stage Thursday with a doctor, a patient and the mother of a sick child as he hosted a discussion on medical technology. The images were tailor-made for TV: a concerned leader engaged on an important matter of public policy.
But Bush soon left the cameras for a private residence nearby and the event that brought him to town in the first place -- a fundraiser that netted $1.7 million for the Republican National Committee.
Such is life these days for Bush, who stopped raising money for his own campaign last month but now is aggressively helping his party beef up its bank account to orchestrate what GOP officials say will be the most sophisticated and expansive get-out-the-vote effort in history this November.
In the last month, Bush often has attended GOP events and conducted taxpayer-financed business while on the same trips outside of Washington. He delivered the commencement address at Louisiana State University before raising $2 million near New Orleans, spoke to graduates of a Wisconsin college shortly after taking in $2.2 million in nearby St. Louis, and hailed his commitment to the environment near a Florida bay before pulling in more than $4 million for the Republican National Committee in Naples and Miami.
Sometimes, as with the commencement speeches, campaign strategists build fundraisers around the president's official schedule.
Other times, a fundraiser prompts White House aides to set up an official event. That is how Bush came to hold a "conversation" on healthcare information technology Thursday in Nashville, a White House spokeswoman said. She said the White House had been seeking an opportunity to hold a healthcare technology event anyway.
The benefit of arranging campaign and official events on a single trip is to save money, campaign finance experts said. The campaign does not have to foot as much of the bill on official trips as it would on an entirely political journey.
"Is it fair? It's the advantage of the incumbent," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush also have coupled fundraising stops with official visits at locales from Florida to Nevada. The money often goes to the RNC's Victory 2004 fund, which has taken in more than $50 million in the last six weeks. The fund will pay for phone banks and other forms of direct voter contact to boost candidates in local, state and national races.
Piggybacking fundraisers on official business is nothing new for presidents of either party. President Clinton netted millions for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee leading up his reelection in 1996, taking heat from critics for his use of White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers.
What is new this election is the law that caps donations to national parties from individuals at $25,000. The national parties are barred from raising unlimited funds, known as "soft money," from unions, corporations and individuals. The Republican National Committee had raised $179.5 million as of the end of April, and had about $64.2 million in the bank, according to the campaign finance monitoring group Political Moneyline. The Democratic National Committee had collected $91.5 million over the same period, and kept about $42.3 million in cash.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm in the grass roots to make sure Democrats are in the strongest position possible to compete," said DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera.
The marquee event so far for the Republicans came May 6, when Bush appeared at a Washington hotel for a gala that pulled in $38 million for the victory fund.
Other recent big-ticket events included a May 17 gathering in Atlanta, in which Bush helped collect $3.2 million after spending time earlier that day in Topeka, Kan., observing the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, which barred state-sanctioned school segregation. On April 26, Bush traveled to Minnesota to speak to the American Assn. of Community Colleges and helped raise $1 million at a separate event for the Republican Party.
With several Senate and House races tightening and Bush sliding in battleground state surveys, the president is expected to continue an aggressive pace of collecting money.
And, aides said, the trips will continue to be built around official visits.
Next week, for instance, Bush will deliver the commencement address to the Air Force Academy, then headline another Republican National Committee fundraiser.
"The point is to make the most effective and efficient use of the president's time," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.
The law requires the campaign to pay the equivalent of a first-class ticket for Bush and other campaign-related staffers when they travel to campaign events on Air Force One.
Buchan said the campaign paid for Bush's air travel to Nashville on Thursday, although she did not yet know the amount he was charged for the 1 1/2-hour flight.
Noble said the practice falls within the letter of the law.
"The campaign pays for a lot of it," he said, "but obviously it doesn't come close to paying for the cost of Air Force One."
Times staff writer Lisa Getter contributed to this report.