With Weeks to Go, Bush Heads Out on Fund-raising Frenzy

President Bush is closing out his unprecedented drive to elect Republicans with a homestretch sprint to nearly two dozen states that will keep him on the road almost continuously for three weeks.

Bush has targeted states where candidates for the House, Senate and governor's office most need his help, several of which will be battlegrounds in his own expected re-election campaign in 2004. Between now and Nov. 5, he will spend nearly as many nights in hotel rooms as in the White House or on his Texas ranch.

The schedule remains fluid, but according to GOP officials, Bush will pay particular attention to Minnesota, where Republican Norm Coleman is trying to oust Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone; to South Dakota, where GOP Rep. John Thune is trying to replace Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, and to Florida, where the president's brother Jeb is fighting for re-election.

Bush will also focus on Missouri, where Republican Jim Talent is giving Sen. Jean Carnahan a tough challenge, and Pennsylvania, where there are competitive House races.

Next Monday's schedule typifies how Bush will spend many days: In Michigan, he will appear at what the White House calls a welcoming event, generally a rally where he can discuss a grab-bag of issues and politics; then he headlines two fund-raisers.

About a year ago, senior aides first presented Bush with their plan for him to play an unusually active role in the Republican effort to recapture the Senate, keep the House and win governorships. That was early in the war in Afghanistan, and Bush waved them away, saying he couldn't focus on politics then.

But early this year, he accepted the blueprint and is determined in particular to win back the Senate. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Wednesday that Bush was "madder than hell'' at the Senate for torpedoing judicial nominees.

"Every vote in the Congress counts,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "So he will spend some time on the road working to build support for candidates who support his vision.''

Bush has collected more money for his party and candidates than any other president. In 63 fund-raisers, he has brought in more than $136 million. He has also stroked contributors at three "donor maintenance'' events. He and Vice President Dick Cheney, who sometimes headlines three fund-raisers a day, have brought in more than $158 million between them.

Bush's fund-raising campaign is winding down, officials say. He is shifting to get-out-the-vote rallies, using the presidency to light up the local news media with the arrival of Air Force One and by standing next to GOP candidates.

Democrats have increasingly criticized the White House for billing taxpayers for part of Bush's political travels. The administration has typically called welcoming events on the fund-raising trail "official'' appearances, meaning it could bill taxpayers for half. Bush dropped that practice in Tennessee on Tuesday, abandoning any claim that the travel there was policy-related so he could openly campaign for Republicans. Campaigns and the GOP then pick up a larger share of the tab.

Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., last week asked the White House to account for how it has billed taxpayers and collected money from campaigns and parties in Bush's and Cheney's travels.

Reid has not heard back from the White House, his office said Thursday. "It appears they're spending so much time fund raising, there's been no time to answer the letter,'' said spokeswoman Tessa Hafen.

Bush's 11th-hour drive for Republicans comes as he weighs whether to wage war against Iraq and how to revive the struggling economy.

Amid the campaign travel, the president will wedge in a meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Texas late this month and will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.