BUSH
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are introduced at the Republican National Committe's fund-raiser Wednesday night in Washington, D.C.
updated 5/6/2004 12:48:27 PM ET 2004-05-06T16:48:27

President Bush helped the GOP raise at least $38.5 million Wednesday at its annual gala — all of it in donations limited in size — and smash a one-night record set when political parties could still rake in large corporate contributions.

The Republican National Committee can spend the money as it chooses, from general party get-out-the-vote efforts to direct support for Bush’s re-election campaign and GOP candidates down the ticket.

Bush, the keynote speaker, took the stage and shook the hands of several major RNC fund-raisers, including boxing promoter Don King, who waved two American flags. Bush thanked the crowd for setting a record.

“It’s important to have enough fuel to make sure the grass roots are activated as we come down the stretch next fall,” Bush told his cheering audience.

Digs at Kerry
He drew more applause and laughter with several digs at Democratic challenger John Kerry during the half-hour speech.

“We should not take him lightly. He’s an experienced senator who’s built up quite a record,” Bush said of Kerry, without naming him. “He’s been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue.”

The gala total tops the roughly $30 million Bush helped raise at a Republican congressional dinner and the RNC gala in 2002, the last year national party committees could collect “soft money” — business, union and unlimited donations.

Now the national parties can raise only limited contributions from individuals and political action committees, which are funded by people. They can accept up to $25,000 per year from those donors. Last year, the RNC raised about $15 million at the gala.

About 1,500 people attended the RNC’s event at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, which like the 2003 gala called for business attire rather than the tuxedos and gowns of previous years. Several GOP governors, senators and House members attended, as did Cabinet secretaries Gale Norton, Ann Veneman, Spencer Abraham and Tommy Thompson.

Following the theme “Taste of the States,” the menu included crab cakes, Boston cream pie and New York cheesecake to represent the Atlantic region; smoked country ham, fried green tomatoes and peach cobbler for “Dixieland”; sushi, smoked salmon and baked Alaska for the Pacific coast; pork chops, empanadas and churros for the “Home on the Range” states; and roast beef, Wisconsin cheeses and apple pie for the “Heartland.”

In a nod to Bush’s Texas roots, chocolate cowboy boots were filled with raspberry mousse. Straw cowboy hats also were given to all donors, many of whom put them on with their business suits.

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Bush family video
The RNC added another personal touch by showing a video of the Bush family, including scenes of Bush and first lady Laura Bush kissing and holding hands as they walked, and of Bush hugging his brother Jeb, Florida’s governor.

Several of the Bush campaign’s fund-raising volunteers also helped raise money for the event, including San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos and Washington lobbyists Tom Loeffler and David Girard-diCarlo, who each raised at least $200,000 for Bush’s re-election effort.

The fund-raiser came after a day of RNC donor events that included a speech by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao titled “America at Work.”

The record-setting night comes as Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and others travel the country raising money for the RNC and other Republican causes.

The three have helped the RNC raise roughly $17 million at “Victory” events around the nation since February, in addition to the millions from the gala.

The GOP has long enjoyed a multimillion-dollar advantage over the Democratic Party. But Democrats, too, have seen their finances pick up this year, even as the parties adjust to the soft money ban that took effect after the November 2002 elections.

Presidential candidate John Kerry, his party’s presumptive nominee, has been helping the Democratic National Committee raise millions of dollars at party fund-raisers he has headlined in conjunction with his own money events.

Kerry and former Presidents Clinton and Carter helped the DNC take in roughly $11 million at its Washington gala in March, a Democratic Party record. The party committee has raised $24 million through other fund-raisers and additional efforts such as Internet and mail solicitations since Kerry secured the nomination March 2.

The DNC had about $40 million in the bank as of Wednesday. The RNC had $53.9 million on hand as of March 31, the most recent figure available.

Until Bush took office, Clinton and then-Vice President Al Gore held the record for the most party money ever taken in through one event. They raised $26.5 million at a DNC barbecue in 2000, much of it in soft money.

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