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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 August, 2003, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Presidential hopefuls dash for cash
By Ian Pannell
BBC correspondent in Washington

President George Bush
President Bush hopes to raise $200m for his re-election campaign
President Bush's summer break at his ranch will be less peaceful than most.

The next presidential election may be over a year away but campaigning is already under way.

This August George W Bush and his potential opponents will be busy with fundraising events, pulling in more dollars to their already bulging campaign coffers.

But questions are being asked about the quantity and quality of money raised.

The Bush war chest

At a recent press conference, a reporter asked Mr Bush: "Mr President, with no opponent how can you spend $170m or more on your primary campaign?"

To that, the plain-spoken president responded: "Just watch."

In a country where bigger usually passes for better, it is perhaps no surprise that the president should make a virtue of trying to collect more money than anyone else - ever - in his re-election bid.

The president, Vice-President Dick Cheney and even First Lady Laura Bush have been criss-crossing the country raising millions for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

President Bush supporters at a Washington fundraiser
President Bush is raising millions at fundraisers across the US
It began in Washington with cheers and cheque books for George W Bush.

It is still 15 months away from an election, but there is no end of well-heeled fans willing to donate $2,000 a time. The dash for cash is well under way.

"Tonight's event has raised an astonishing $3.5m," said Marvin Bush, the president's brother.

The Washington fundraiser was not a bad start to what is turning into the largest political fundraising drive in history.

The Bush team are aiming to raise up to $200m, and that's just in the race for the Republican nomination.

It is a one-horse race, because there are no other runners.

Pioneers and Rangers

Controversial new campaign-finance laws were supposed to make this election less consumed by big-money and the influence that comes with it.

But Don Simon of the campaign finance group Common Cause thinks there are already signs that the 2004 presidential race will be anything but reformed.

"I think what we're going to see in this year's presidential campaign is a pretty dispiriting spectacle of just a wild amount of fund-raising, huge sums of money, using that to buy access and influence with the White House," he said.

Don Simon of Common Cause
They are doing this to buy access and influence, and unfortunately, that is how the US system works
Don Simon, Common Cause

"I think it's really going to illustrate the need for further reform," he added.

George W Bush has a vast network of fundraisers and even a title for his top breadwinners.

In 2000, Mr Bush's Pioneers all helped raise more than $100,000.

They did not give $100,000 each, which is not allowed under US campaign finance rules.

Instead, these well-connected people "bundle" contributions, encouraging others to donate to the campaign.

For the 2004 election, the president has raised the bar. Those who raise $200,000 will be part of the Ranger programme.

And Mr Simon says that the Rangers and Pioneers will be the ones who receive the best ambassadorial positions, who get the best government jobs and who will have the ear of the president.

"They are doing this to buy access and influence, and unfortunately, that is how the US system works," he said.

Democrats fight for funds

The Democrats won't know who their candidate is until some time next spring, and the field is crowded.

There are nine candidates vying to be their party's choice for president.

Despite furious lobbying, their combined coffers still fall behind those of George Bush.

The cost of running for the White House continues to rise, despite efforts to reform the system.

This has all become something of a familiar spectacle for the American public with money and politics skipping along hand-in-hand.

Voters had been expecting something a little cleaner this time round, but as the election campaign gets under way, it looks like dollars and donations as usual.

The BBC's Ian Pannell
"Voters had expected a cleaner election, but it is dollars and donations as usual"

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