WASHINGTON – President Bush (search)'s plan to raise $170 million or more before next year's general election season, and the speed with which he is raising it, has impressed political observers, including Democrats who view that goal with a mixture of awe and fear.
"Bush is going to raise more money than anybody ever has who's run for president," said Democratic strategist and former Al Gore (search) spokesman Doug Hattaway (search). "It really is inconceivable how he is going to spend all that money when he doesn't even have an opponent in the primary."
Asked that very question this month, the president replied, "Just watch."
Another response may have been, "Let me count the ways."
Foremost among them, of course, will be money spent on ensuring his own re-election.
"I would estimate that he'd spend the majority of dollars on TV," said "Almanac of American Politics" author Michael Barone.
That could happen earlier than many people expect. The heavily populated Democratic primary appears to favor those who criticize Bush the loudest and sharpest. Already, the criticisms have taken their toll on the president's poll numbers.
The White House wants to be ready to push back.
"If the president's popularity continues to drop, I would expect the president to begin to spend money soon in critical battleground states, in positive advertising, designed to bolster his numbers," said Georgetown University professor Clyde Wilcox.
Next March, when one of the nine Democrats will have wrapped up the nomination, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign can take aim at his presumptive challenger in a period of relative advantage.
Though the Democratic candidate will get plenty of help along the way from special interest groups, he or she will get no new public matching funds until after the convention in late July, giving Bush a chance to take his best shots at his opponent without spending all the money he hopes to raise.
That's similar to what happened in 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton spent some $50 million trying to tarnish the image of former Sen. Bob Dole, who emerged with little money after a bruising primary.
"Fifty million dollars versus nothing, and Bob Dole was in a deep hole and couldn't get out of it," said Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute.
Of course, the president will find plenty of places to spend the cash. With elections in recent years getting closer and closer, campaigns are spending more and more on old-fashioned things like voter identification and turnout.
"So you have small groups of people who can really decide the outcome of an election and the trick is to go find them and motivate them to come out to vote," Hattaway said.
That's a plan presidential political advisers are known to like. Though the recruitment and training is expensive, many expect the president will still have money by convention time in late August.
At that point, just like in the last election, he will accept federal matching funds for the fall campaign, and will no longer be allowed to spend what's left of the $170 million on his own re-election.
But that money will be precious for other reasons. Bush can give it to other Republican groups, who in turn can support Republican candidates for Congress. Some experts say holding back $20 million to $30 million to become his party's biggest political philanthropist is a good idea.
"One thing George W. Bush doesn't want to do is what Nixon did in '72 and Reagan in '84 — that is, get re-elected by a landside margin but see your party make minimal-to-no gains in the houses of Congress," said Barone.
"I think this president is in a position to be more of a party leader in congressional elections than any president in modern history," Malbin said.
The prospect is tantalizing for the Bush team, which says the president does not want what one strategist called a "lonely victory."
Officials say they are planning for a close and tough campaign, so the Bush-Cheney team is counting its pennies. In fact, the campaign turns off the air-conditioning at its headquarters in the evenings in order to save money.
Fox News' Jim Angle contributed to this report.