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Division adds up in GOP coffers

President Bush may be polarizing, but intensity opens donors' wallets, according to party advisors and activists.

March 02, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush insists that he will stay out of the race over who will succeed him, at least until a Republican nominee is chosen. But that isn't keeping him from becoming the chief fundraiser for Republicans, his low poll ratings notwithstanding.

Bush helped raise $10.4 million for the Republican Governors Assn. earlier this week, and he will be the star attraction at a fundraising dinner tonight in Louisville, Ky., for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. It is expected to bring in more than $2 million.

Republican activists and advisors say the president is likely to speak at several fundraising events in each of the coming months, showing that Bush still has considerable power to help his party even though his approval ratings have averaged well below 50% throughout his second term.

Bush's fundraising abilities underscore a key fact of modern political life, according to several Republican consultants and a major fundraiser: Political division is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to breeding political loyalty, and loyalty translates into contributions.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush's approval rating reached 90% in the Gallup Poll, and it remained above 60% as the 2002 election approached. In 2001 and 2002, Bush raised $192 million for Republican candidates, according to the Republican National Committee.

By contrast, around election time last year, only 38% of Gallup respondents approved of Bush's job performance. But Bush's fundraising numbers were unchanged: During the two years leading up to the 2006 election, he raised $194 million, the party reported.

In short, while his popularity sank, his fundraising touch remained golden.

That, said Frank J. Donatelli, a White House political director under President Reagan, illustrates a central factor at the intersection of politics and cash: "Intensity raises money."

Republican fundraiser Wayne L. Berman agreed: "The dirty little secret of all this is that being a polarizing figure -- whether you are George Bush or Bill Clinton -- your popularity with the base is a tremendous financial asset and resource" for your party

As the leading figure in the GOP, Bush is following tradition by remaining on the sidelines of the presidential race until Republicans select their nominee.

But there are Senate, House and gubernatorial races drawing his focus, and candidates are ready to take advantage of his 76% approval rating among Republicans, as measured by Gallup during the second week of February.

So, even as his overall approval rating shows no sign of rebound, Republicans expect Bush to head to friendly territory to help pad the bank accounts of Republican campaigns, or to conduct low-visibility events in Washington for candidates in contested states where Bush's popularity lags.

"Helping safe incumbents have good, solid treasuries so they won't have problems next year is smart," said Ron Kaufman, a Bush family political advisor for nearly three decades.

"The best thing a president can do for any candidate, whether he is at 40% or 90%, is fundraising."

The challenge is to help raise money without associating the candidates too closely with an unpopular president.

Hence, fundraising efforts are being conducted far ahead of election day.

"He can go pretty much anywhere in '07 to raise money for '08," Kaufman said.

james.gerstenzang@

latimes.com

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