Bankrolled almost entirely by taxpayers, President Bush is roaming far and wide on Air Force One to help Republicans retain control of Congress and capture statehouse contests in high-stakes midterm elections.
In 15 months, including back-to-back fundraisers Wednesday in Little Rock, Ark., and Nashville, Tenn., Bush has collected $166 million for the campaign accounts of 27 Republican candidates, the national GOP and its state counterparts across the country, according to the Republican National Committee.
High-dollar Washington galas headlined by the fundraiser-in-chief brought in a big share of the total. The president also has scooped up campaign cash in 36 cities, travels that have taken him as near as McLean, Va., in the Washington suburbs and as far as Medina, Wash., 2,800 miles to the west. On Thursday, Bush adds yet another locale to the list: Salt Lake City.
Travel expected to increase
All this to-and-fro presidential politicking is only expected to increase as November draws closer. And it is the taxpayers, not the campaigns or political parties, who foot most of the travel bill.
When Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, first lady Laura Bush or any federal official helps a candidate, Federal Election Commission guidelines say the campaign must reimburse the government only the equivalent of a first-class fare for each political traveler on each leg of the trip. Typically, that means paying a few hundred or at most a few thousand dollars to cover the president and a couple of aides from the White House Office of Political Affairs.
The White House deems staffers from any other office "official," eliminating any need for campaigns to cover their travel.
And the White House requires reimbursement only if the president specifically advocates a candidate's election, for instance by headlining a fundraiser or a rally on their behalf. That means that staging appearances alongside the president - from Air Force One's jetway or at a policy event - costs a candidate nothing even though they can bask in the media spotlight.
No rules broken
Bush is not the first president to operate this way. The federal regulations governing reimbursement for political travel have been on the books at least since the Reagan administration, and the White House said Bush adheres to all rules.
Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a taxpayers advocacy organization, suggested at least requiring campaigns to cover the actual cost of fueling and providing a crew to Air Force One, which runs to tens of thousands of dollars each hour for the specially retrofitted Boeing 747-200B Bush usually uses.
But Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money's impact on politics, said that seems unrealistic. "You would bankrupt the campaign," he said.
Ritsch said the system is likely to remain for the foreseeable future - mostly because both Democrats and Republicans have benefited, leaving little will on either side to change it.
"Having a member of your party in the White House is a perk for any candidate in that party," he said. "He comes with all the trappings of the president and you as a candidate really don't have to pay for any of it."
Beside the substantial Air Force One costs, other expenses not covered by the airfare reimbursement are extensive.
The Secret Service provides massive presidential protection. Advance teams fan out before trips to map every move. Overnight stays bring hotel costs for the large presidential entourage. Duplicate motorcades of well over a dozen vehicles each, including armored limousines and sometimes several helicopters, must be shipped ahead on cargo planes to every city.
Like others before it, the White House often transfers more of the bill-paying burden onto taxpayers by pairing an "official" event with the political one. Then, the percentage of time spent on official and political duties is calculated to determine what portion of the first-class fare is owed by the campaign.
Nearly two-thirds of Bush's travel days outside of Washington for political appearances this election cycle have included an "official" event. Most of the time, the two events are near enough not to require a separate flight, making it even more economical for the campaign.
At the beginning of August, for instance, Bush stopped briefly at a county emergency operations center outside Cleveland to commemorate routine disaster declarations for the area's heavy rains. It was a stop added only at the last minute, and just five minutes from a home where he was scheduled to raise $1.5 million for Ohio's Republican candidate for governor, Kenneth Blackwell.
An increasingly common approach is to pick a local business for Bush to tour and use as a backdrop for casual remarks on the economy. A visit earlier this month to a York, Pa., Harley-Davidson plant preceded a fundraiser for Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann.
In July, Bush chatted with workers at a Wisconsin Allen-Edmonds shoe factory before helping GOP Rep. Mark Green's gubernatorial campaign. And in mid-August, the president raised money for Republican congressional candidate John Gard in Oneida, Wis., following a brief stop at a nearby metal plant.
A president's unique ability to attract large donations from party faithful, and to do it on the cheap for the benefiting campaign, help explain why Bush is in demand as a fundraiser despite low approval ratings. Many candidates, however, are choosing this year to set up their Bush-headlined donor receptions in private homes, where the media is barred.