America - Andrew Stephen tots up Bush's campaign funds

As the campaign for his re-election gets under way, Boy George is raising so much money that the Dem

Never mind sexing up intelligence on both sides of the Atlantic, never mind an increasing number of American deaths in Iraq and the ever-elusive Saddam and Osama Bin Laden, never mind rising unemployment: Boy George now has his mind firmly set on filling his political coffers with a record amount of loot. In the last two weeks of of June, he set off on a coast-to-coast blitz of fundraising that, by the end of this month, will have helped put $34.4m into the Bush-Cheney 2004 account. Before the Republican convention in New York in September next year, he will have raised at least $170m, if not more than $200m. That means he will have no less than $426,640 to spend on political campaigning every day, seven days a week, from now until election time. Not even those great old fundraisers Ronald Reagan, in 1984, and Bill Clinton, in 1996, came close to raising that amount (even allowing for inflation).

What I find astonishing is that Bush is being given a completely free rein to do this and to deliver the most partisan of political speeches, untouched by Democrat politicians or the media. His two-week blitz started off with a $2,000-a-plate dinner of hamburgers, hot dogs and nachos at a hotel in Washington - you get to be in the same hotel ballroom as the president, but not to meet him, for that amount - where he stayed just 90 minutes. But those 90 minutes raised $3.5m for his campaign organisation and it has been much the same in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and other cities: the bucks just keep rolling in.

And these days, Bush's stump speech is highly effective for a man who could read an autocue only with difficulty three years ago, and is much the same wherever he goes - though his speechwriters are careful to interlace his speeches with local details and statistics. If he touches for a minute or so on domestic woes, he now always says "we inherited an economy in recession", as though, if he repeats it enough, it will become true. In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research dates the beginning of the recession to March 2001, two months after Bush took office. But then he goes on assiduously to avoid the word "recession", preferring "economic slowdown".

But here is a more typical part of what he told the 1,400 lobbyists and supporters in Washington, empty in meaning but stirring in rhetoric: "We seek to lift whole nations by spreading freedom. And at home we seek to lift up lives by spreading opportunity to every corner, to every person of this great country. That is the work that history has set before us. We welcome it. And we know that, for our country, better days lie ahead." That is the pattern: painting a picture of dire times for America, of unnamed but dark forces trying to undermine it - followed by stirring rhetoric to the effect that only the Bush administration, with God's help, can save the country from such a terrible, if mysterious, fate. Even Ronald Reagan was not so audacious; so far, Bush's effrontery has worked wonders in raking in the dough.

How does he get away with it? The sad fact is that the atrocities of 11 September 2001 rendered him immune from political criticism, bestowing on him an unquestioned mantle of righteousness: after all, he is still the commander-in-chief battling the menace of Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other unseen forces on behalf of the nation. Bush's poll ratings were dire before 11 September 2001 - but his political guru, Karl Rove, then cleverly and subliminally combined the role of heroic commander-in-chief with those of Republican leader and chief fundraiser. It is a clever if iniquitous dual role, and leaves the Democrats literally speechless, as though they are collectively transfixed by the glare of the Bush headlights.

So far, nine declared Democrat candidates want to take on Bush next year, and between them they raised a meagre $25m in the first quarter of this year; running TV ads for a week in New York alone can account for at least $5m. Even if some of the declared candidates drop out, the others face a fierce, exhausting and economically ruinous battle in the primaries starting next January. By March, one will probably have emerged as the likely presidential candidate, but he or she (there is one female contender) will be exhausted and have largely empty coffers while Bush will still seem above the political fray, flying freely around on Air Force One with all the presidential trappings - and busily spending his $426,640 every day. Financially and politically exhausting their opponents was a tactic successfully used by both Reagan and Clinton.

To add to the Democrats' troubles, they will be unable to raise "soft money" because of the provisions of McCain-Feingold (the Campaign Finance Reform Act), which came into force last 6 November and will be reviewed by the US Supreme Court this autumn. "Soft money" is unlimited funds that go to the parties. It is raised by political front groups, and, particularly given Bush's fundraising success, the prohibition will hit the Democrats much harder than the Republicans. The Democrats, therefore, will be desperately hoping the nine justices of the Supreme Court overturn the act.

Dick Cheney has also been on major fundraising drives (in particular, in Massachusetts, Virginia, Michigan and Ohio) and will continue to do so. Boy George and his cohorts are likely to raise so much money that they will be ineligible for federal matching funds, which the law dictates that campaign organisations can claim unless they exceed a certain amount on their own. However, the Republicans have calculated that they can raise more funds on their own.

The law divides campaign fundraising into two periods: one for the season of the primaries, and one for the general election that begins after the political conventions which formally choose each party's presidential candidate. Bush will have no rival in the primaries, so will be able to keep his powder dry for the one-on-one battle with a Democrat candidate that will almost certainly be under way by next spring.

And from convention time until the presidential election in November, Bush will be allowed to claim federal matching funds (although it has been noticed that, in his income tax returns, he did not tick the box authorising the use of $3 of his own money for the political parties). He and his campaign are sitting pretty. While the Democrat candidate who emerges from the primaries recoups himself and starts to raise serious money between March and the party convention in July, Boy George and the Republicans will be able to fire away with barrages of television and radio ads. If the Democrat candidate does not manage to acquire the funds needed to run a highly charged campaign during the critical months of September and October, the election could be lost even before the Democrats have formally chosen their candidate. To get elected, Bush raised a then record amount of more than $100m - enough, almost certainly, to get the better of Al Gore in what turned out to be a razor-thin electoral result.

For all these reasons, hopeful Democrats have little choice, therefore, but to fall back on the late Harold Wilson's dictum that a week in politics is a long time. Iraq could become a real quagmire, lowering Bush's poll ratings; the inability to find weapons of mass destruction and the sexed-up intelligence, though hardly issues here now, could be exploited by a skilled Democrat (who has not yet materialised); the US intervention in Liberia will probably not prove popular with voters; the nation's unemployment rate shot up to 6.4 per cent last month, the highest in more than nine years; businesses shed 30,000 jobs for the fifth month in succession, with factory workers hardest hit; and so on.

For the moment, Karl Rove and his handlers have succeeded in placing Bush above politics in the public perception - when, in fact, he's been getting down and dirty already. Nobody, to my knowledge, has taken him to task for this. And so far the nine Democrat candidates have proved uninspiring. So let's forget Osama, Saddam, unemployment or the other pesky problems that in reality afflict this administration: the main thing is to get Boy George elected for another four years, isn't it?