WASHINGTON – President Bush, with no challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, begins the 2004 election year with a record $99 million in the bank and an aggressive plan to raise millions more.
While the nine hopefuls competing for the Democratic nomination have spent much of the money they've taken in, Bush's cash-on-hand total shows he's spent a fraction of the record $130.8 million he raised last year.
Bush plans to raise $150 million to $170 million in all. He hit the fund-raising trail again this week, with events in St. Louis; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Palm Beach, Fla. There are more events to come.
"We think this is what we need to be able to build the kind of grass-roots effort we need to kind of share the president's message in a closely divided nation," campaign manager Ken Mehlman said. "We are a closely divided nation. We have a campaign that reflects that."
Mehlman, who is keeping an eye on spending by Democratic-leaning interest groups active in the race, declined to say whether Bush would stop raising money when he reaches his goal. Bush has received contributions from every state and county, Mehlman said.
Much of Bush's money came thanks to a network of business executives, lobbyists, attorneys and other volunteer campaign fund-raisers who gathered at least $100,000 or $200,000 in donations to become Bush "pioneers" or "rangers." More than 300 people have raised $100,000 or more for Bush.
In the last fund-raising quarter, from October through December, Bush raised $47 million. About $32 million came through fund-raisers, $14 million through direct mail, and $1 million over the Internet.
Bush's 2003 fund raising rivals that of all the Democratic candidates put together. They have raised at least $120.5 million, with John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton yet to release fourth-quarter totals. Unlike Bush, they have spent most of their money campaigning in the upcoming primaries.
Bush's nearest challenger in the money chase, Democratic front-runner Howard Dean (search), raised about $40 million last year.
While Bush has relied largely on personal appearances to raise his campaign money, Dean has made prolific use of the Internet (search), raising millions so far. His Web site frequently challenges donors to help raise certain amounts: Currently, supporters in seven Feb. 3 primary states are being asked to help Dean collect $700,000 by midnight Friday.
Like Bush, Dean is skipping public financing for his primary campaign, freeing himself from the overall and state-by-state spending limits that come with it.
Fund-raising experts in both parties believe Bush can raise $200 million or more for his primary campaign, double the record of roughly $100 million he collected for his 2000 race.
Dean has said he can match Bush dollar-for-dollar if 2 million Americans contribute $100 each.
No major party nominee has ever refused public financing for the general election. As he did in 2000, Bush plans to accept that money, giving him full government financing of about $74 million when the GOP officially nominates him at its convention in New York City in September.
That means any money Bush raises before he accepts the public financing must be spent before then to be of any use to him in the 2004 election.
Anticipating a close election, Bush is also giving attention to get-out-the-vote efforts and raising money for other Republicans.
Mehlman is involved in an effort to organize CEOs into a grass-roots organization to support Bush's re-election efforts. Businesses are playing an increasingly important role urging their workers to vote as Republicans try to counter union voter outreach efforts.
On Wednesday, Bush was meeting with some of the Republican National Committee's (search) biggest fund-raisers, including those who donate the maximum $25,000 per year that the nation's new campaign finance law allows.