Monday, October 6, 2003

Roger Williams, a second-generation car dealer from Fort Worth, knows a thing or two about coaxing people to part with their money. These days, he is channeling those persuasive skills into an impassioned crusade -- helping George W. Bush stay in the White House.

Texans back Bush with the big bucks

By Dave Montgomery, Star-Telegram Washington Bureau
October 6, 2003

WASHINGTON - Roger Williams, a second-generation car dealer from Fort Worth, knows a thing or two about coaxing people to part with their money. These days, he is channeling those persuasive skills into an impassioned crusade -- helping George W. Bush stay in the White House.

Whether he is racing through airports with his ever-present cell phone or extolling the president's virtues to a crowd of strangers, the 54-year-old businessman is always on the hunt for big bucks to help finance the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

Williams is one of hundreds of supersalesmen in the biggest and most effective presidential fund-raising machine in history. While the outcome of the 2004 election is in doubt, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have clearly won the dollar war, amassing three times more money than the most well-heeled Democrat, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

When the next quarterly fund-raising reports are released Oct. 15, the Bush-Cheney campaign will report having raised $80 million to $84 million over the past six months, putting the Republican president and his running mate confidently on their way to shattering their own record from 2000.

Bush's political strategists hope to raise $150 million to $170 million, well above the $101 million collected during the first campaign.

Almost as impressive as the number of dollars is the way they are raised.

Organized and led by basically the same team that engineered the 2000 effort, Bush-Cheney 2004 boasts a coast-to-coast network of high-powered fund-raisers, led with crisp precision from campaign headquarters in Washington. Even Democrats begrudgingly express admiration.

"They're as effective as anybody I've ever seen," said Democratic strategist Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor who has watched hundreds of fund-raising campaigns since the days of Lyndon Johnson, the first president from Texas.

The Bush-Cheney finance team has expanded one of the central innovations that helped the first campaign succeed. "Pioneers," those who raise at least $100,000 on behalf of the president, are back again, but now there is an even loftier class of contributors -- "Rangers," or those who raise at least $200,000.

Watchdog groups and campaign reform advocates have assailed the Pioneer-Ranger concept as a corrupting element that enables powerful business leaders to gain access to and influence in the White House by raising huge sums of money.

Of the more than 500 Pioneers from the 2000 campaign, 43 received appointments in the Bush administration, according to a study by Austin-based Texans for Public Justice. Two became Cabinet members: Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"Absolutely, there is something wrong with it," said Craig McDonald, director of the watchdog group. "The law says every American is entitled to only $2,000 worth of political clout [the maximum individual contribution]. Yet these Pioneers are getting $200,000 to perhaps $1 million worth of political clout."

The president's campaign Web site lists 23 Rangers and 45 Pioneers for the 2004 race, and others no doubt will emerge with the release of the next financial report. Many represent the upper strata of corporate America, with deep roots in the Republican Party and, in some cases, close ties to the Bush family.

The list includes nine Pioneers and two Rangers from the president's home state of Texas. The two Rangers are Michael Boone, a prominent Dallas attorney, and Nancy Kinder of Houston, the wife of a former Enron executive and a longtime patron of Republican causes.

Undeniably, the Pioneers and Rangers have closer connections with the presidency than the average $25 donor, and some were on a first-name basis with Bush long before he entered politics.

Campaign officials, and many of the Rangers and Pioneers themselves, insist that they are driven by a genuine commitment to the Bush philosophy.

"I'm in the candy business and I've never sold a pound of candy to the government," said Bob Asher, a Philadelphia chocolate magnate who has raised more than $160,000 in $2,000 contributions and is approaching Ranger status. "My people believe in President Bush and what he stands for. You may find that hard to believe, but that's the truth. They don't have a hidden agenda."

The deepest financial wellspring for Bush is his home state. More money came from Texas -- more than $16 million for the 2000 campaign -- than from any other state. Texas is on track to reclaim its top position in 2004, with $4.1 million raised as of June 30.

The Texas fund-raising organization is headed by 75-year-old Dallas businessman Fred Meyer, a former state Republican chairman. And it includes a cross section of prominent Republicans, many of whom are longtime friends of Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president.

Williams typifies the high energy level that drives the campaign at the state and the national level. If he isn't working the phones from his Weatherford car dealership, he's jetting across the country. Last week's commitments took him to Denver and Chicago.

"I've got a cause I believe in, and I don't mind asking people to get on board and help," he said.

Meyer says the campaign revolves around old-fashioned networking -- a call to an old friend who calls another old friend. A bountiful starting point is the list of 11,600 Texas donors who gave the maximum contribution in 2000, Meyer said.

Propelled by Bush's strength as the incumbent, as well as experience from the previous campaign, fund raising is off to a much faster start this time. Bush has charged through 23 fund-raisers, including mid-July stops in Dallas and Houston that raised $7 million.

Last week, Republican leaders announced that Bush had drawn 1 million new donors into the party during his nearly three years in office, surpassing Ronald Reagan's record of 853,595. The average contribution was less than $30, GOP officials said.

In the last three months, Bush has raised $48 million to $50 million.

"They've done a more effective organizational job than anyone ever has," said Republican strategist Charlie Black of Alexandria, Va.

The McCain-Feingold law, designed to change some aspects of the national campaign finance system, has actually enhanced fund raising for presidential candidates by increasing the maximum individual contribution from $1,000 to $2,000.

As of the quarter ending June 30, 76 percent of Bush's donations had come from maximum contributions of $2,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which analyzes political fund raising.