LITTLE ROCK – Republican gubernatorial nominee Asa Hutchinson will rely on President Bush for some high-profile — albeit private — help as the president campaigns for Hutchinson at a Little Rock fundraiser Wednesday.
Bush's appearance at former Razorback and NBA player Joe Kleine's Little Rock home Wednesday may give Hutchinson a financial boost before the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the fall campaign against Democrat Mike Beebe.
About 800 people are expected to attend the $500 a person luncheon at Kleine's home, with the money going toward both Hutchinson's campaign and the Republican Party of Arkansas.
The president's appearance isn't open to the public or the media, and he doesn't have any other public appearances scheduled during his brief stop in Little Rock.
The closed-door fundraiser comes as Bush's job approval rating has dropped to 33 percent, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted this month. In the South, Bush's approval ratings dropped from 43 percent last month to 34 percent.
Hutchinson, who served in the current administration as a federal Homeland Security official and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the low-key nature of Bush's visit isn't a reflection of the president's sagging popularity.
Hutchinson said the private setting will provide a more intimate and casual atmosphere for supporters.
"Everybody in Arkansas will know he's coming in, no matter where he is," Hutchinson said. "Whether his poll numbers are low or high, he's the president of the United States."
The president's visit caps two months of high-profile supporters Hutchinson has brought in, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, Vice President Dick Cheney and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in an attempt to close a fundraising gap with Beebe, the state's attorney general.
Hutchinson said he probably won't be bringing in as many big names as the campaign stretches into September and October.
"I am pleased (Bush) is coming early before the heat of the fall campaign occurs," Hutchinson said. "I think it's the perfect timing for my campaign."
The celebrity visits appear to have helped somewhat, with Hutchinson leading Beebe in monthly contributions for the first time last month.
Beebe still leads Hutchinson in overall fundraising with a total of nearly $4.32 million compared with Hutchinson, who has raised nearly $2.33 million.
After Bush's Little Rock stop, he is scheduled to attend a $2,100-a-plate fundraiser for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Corker in Nashville.
Political observers say Bush's visit will mostly help Hutchinson financially as he prepares for the fall campaign.
"Financially it has significant potential for benefit and in the governor's race right now, that's the thing Asa needs the most," said Hendrix College Political Science Professor Jay Barth. "He needs to show that he can compete financially."
Barth, a Democrat, said holding the fundraiser at a private home may indicate concerns about how Bush's popularity may affect Hutchinson in the race.
"There are not going to be pictures out of this that could be used for Hutchinson," Barth said. "The reason may be is that the campaign doesn't want pictures that could be used with the other side."
Republican strategist Bill Vickery said the visit will pay off with more than financial benefits for Hutchinson's campaign.
"Instead of renting some place, it shows the genuine support that both Asa and the president both have from real people and you don't get any more Arkansas than Joe Kleine," Vickery said. "It invigorates the base and helps provide a launch pad for Asa's campaign to kick off from."
Beebe's campaign, however, is looking toward another high-profile supporter — former President Clinton — to launch its fall campaign. Clinton, the state's former governor, will headline a Sept. 7 "fish and frog leg" fundraiser for Beebe in North Little Rock.
Beebe may hope that Clinton's fundraising appeal may surpass that of Bush, with Clinton's approval ratings at 61 percent in June according to a USA Today/Gallup poll.
Independent candidate Rod Bryan, who appears on the Nov. 7 ballot along with Green Party nominee Jim Lendall, said he isn't impressed by the president's visit.
"George Bush is a large reason I got into politics," Bryan said. "He represents the bottom of the barrel to me."
Beebe spokesman Zac Wright said he hoped Hutchinson would take Bush around town to help the tourism economy but said Beebe is focused on the campaign.
"Maybe they can enjoy a steak at Does (Eat Place)," Wright said, referring a Little Rock restaurant that was frequented by Clinton and his presidential campaign.