Nearly 17 months before the election, President Bush opened a 10-city fund-raising push designed to pour millions of dollars into his campaign for a second term.

"Your support is going to help us achieve a strong nationwide victory," Bush said, thanking about 1,400 lawyers, lobbyists and others at his campaign's premiere event Tuesday night at the Washington Hilton (search).

The reception was estimated to bring in $3.5 million -- the seeds of a campaign war chest likely to set fund-raising records. Guests donated $2,000 apiece -- as did plenty more who sent money but didn't show up for the hot dogs, hamburgers and nachos.

"It's the best $2,000 hamburger I ever had!" trilled Robin Angle, a consultant from Washington-based Capital Partnership.

The Washington event will be followed by more fund raising Friday at a hotel near Atlanta; next week in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles; and the week after in Miami and Tampa, Fla. The White House announced that late-July fund-raisers would be held in Dallas, Houston and Detroit, and a senior administration official said more events are likely for August.

Bush's aggressive collecting of money is needed to counter "the nine Democrats who spend all of their time saying negative things about the president," spokesman Ari Fleischer (search) said, a reference to the Democratic contenders for Bush's job.

One of the co-chairmen for Tuesday's event was Mitchell Delk, a lobbyist for Freddie Mac, the huge government-sponsored mortgage-market company beset by accounting problems and now under investigation by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission (search).

Freddie Mac spokesman Douglas Robinson said Delk, active in the Republican Party for several years, was acting as a private citizen in the fund-raising role rather than as a company official. After questions were raised, Robinson said Delk would not attend the reception because Freddie Mac officials needed to focus on managing the company at a critical time. As Bush listed and thanked the night's co-chairmen, Delk wasn't mentioned.

Bush political operatives are hoping that the first seven events -- held over a two-week period -- will pull in $20 million for the campaign, the administration official said.

By contrast, the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls together raised a total of $25 million in the year's first three months, the latest figures available.

By the end of the primary election season next year, the Bush camp is aiming to take in as much as $170 million -- nearly twice the record $100 million he collected during the 2000 primary season, said campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish. Some Republicans have predicted the campaign would raise more than $200 million.

As he did in 2000, Bush is skipping taxpayer-financed public funding for his primary campaign. Without the spending limits that accompany those funds, Bush -- with no GOP opponent -- can spend as much as he can collect until his party's nominating convention in September 2004.

He does intend to accept taxpayer financing during the general election campaign, even though he has consistently declined on his federal tax returns to give $3 to the fund.

The Bush campaign's fund raising actually started last month, through the mail, e-mail and its Web site as soon as Bush-Cheney '04 Inc. was launched.

The president spent barely 90 minutes at Tuesday's event, though his schedule had allotted just over two hours. He presented his case for voters to continue with his leadership "in these challenging times," touting his administration's achievements in the war on terror, tax cuts, education reform, trade legislation and homeland security.

"On issue after issue, we acted on principle, we kept our word and we made progress for the American people," Bush said.

He also laid out his campaign platform, promising a commitment to fight for freedom and against poverty around the world, to eliminate threats to Americans' safety and to a host of domestic priorities from a crackdown on medical malpractice suits to Medicare reform to a broad energy agenda.

"We seek to lift whole nations by spreading freedom. And at home, we seek to lift up lives by spreading opportunity to every corner, to every person of this great country," Bush said. "This is the work that history has set before us. We welcome it. And we know that for our country, better days lie ahead."

But Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe called Bush's handling of the economy "disastrous" -- arguing that the president's two major tax cuts primarily benefit the rich.

"The tax bill is turning out to be quite a payday for the Bush administration, as the millions saved by the super rich will go directly out of their pockets and into the pockets of the GOP," McAuliffe said.

Seeking to portray Bush as remaining above the political fray even as campaign events got underway, Fleischer called Bush's fund-raising activities mere preparations for the election. The spokesman said it is "much too early" to discuss when the campaign will begin airing political ads on television.

Other members of the Bush team are pitching in as well. Vice President Dick Cheney is headlining fund-raisers on June 23 in Richmond, Va., and the Boston area, and on June 30 in Ohio and Grand Rapids, Mich. Laura Bush is to attend Bush-Cheney fund-raisers Friday in Chattanooga, Tenn., and June 25 in Philadelphia and Cincinnati.