Bush Begins Cross-Country Blitz for GOP Candidates

W By Ken Fireman

wASHINGTON – In a final effort to influence an election that will powerfully shape the next two years of his presidency and his 2004 re-election prospects, President Bush will spend most of the remaining time before Election Day on the road campaigning for Republican candidates.

Bush’s cross-country push for a Republican-controlled Congress will come on the heels of a yearlong fund-raising effort that has shattered records for a midterm election. The president has raised more than $130 million in trips to 32 states on behalf of 41 different candidates.

The final blitz, which begins Monday in Detroit and takes Bush to Georgia, Florida, Missouri and Minnesota later in the week, will combine fund-raisers with get-out-the-vote rallies. Bush will be on the stump three days this week and then spend every day during the final two weeks before the election on the road, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Most of the travel will be political in nature, Fleischer said, although Bush will blend in a little international summitry. He plans to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin at his Texas ranch on Oct. 25 and attend an Asian-Pacific economic conference in Mexico on Oct. 26-27.

As the closely contested campaign for control of Congress enters the homestretch, Democrats are making an issue of Bush’s political travels amid economic uncertainty and a run-up to a possible war in Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on Friday called on Bush to cancel his campaign swing in order to “show the American people you’re more concerned about their jobs than you are about Republican ones” and that “you have an economic plan.”

The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, has questioned Bush’s practice of charging most of the cost of his political trips to the government by pairing an ostensibly nonpolitical event with an overtly political one. “During a time of war and deepening recession, are these appropriate expenditures to American taxpayers?” he said in a recent letter to the Office of Management and Budget demanding a “full accounting.”

And ethics watchdog groups, recalling Republican condemnations of President Clinton’s relentless fund raising, say Bush’s activities carry at least a whiff of hypocrisy. “One of the issues Bush ran on was ethics and not selling access to the office,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “They called Clinton the `fund-raiser-in-chief.’ Then they quickly break Clinton’s fund-raising records, and you see the president running around the country raising money.”

White House officials say they have no apologies to make because it is entirely proper for a president to campaign for a Congress controlled by those who support his programs. “Every vote in the Congress counts,” Fleischer said. “And so he will spend some time on the road working to build support for candidates who share his vision.”

As for the bills, White House officials say they are following rules promulgated more than 20 years ago that call for travel costs to be split on a proportional basis between the government and the party or candidate when a president combines official and political activities.

However, that formula results in most costs being billed to the government even if the bulk of the trip is devoted to politics. That is because the rules allow the full costs of security, staff and the operation of Air Force One to be charged to the government whenever a president travels, whatever the reason.

A White House spokeswoman, Anne Womack, said the cost of a typical presidential trip would range from $29,000 to $56,000, but declined to provide a breakdown of what that covered. Her estimate seemed low in light of a 1999 General Accounting Office report that said the cost of operating Air Force One was $56,800 per hour.

Most politicians and observers agree that the election holds high stakes for Bush. A Republican-dominated Congress is likely to approve many of his stalled domestic initiatives and judicial appointments; continued Democratic control of the Senate would make that unlikely. The president’s re-election prospects could be complicated if Democrats capture the governorships of several important swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, as current polls suggest is likely.