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Bush Becomes Fund-Raiser-In-Chief

President Bush, headlining a black tie gala Tuesday night that raised $23.9 million for the GOP, praised donors as the key to advancing his agenda.

The Republican National Committee dinner at the National Guard Armory drew more than 2,000 GOP donors at ticket prices ranging from $1,500 per person to $20,000 for a corporate table.

"I appreciate your generous support so that our agenda gets advanced," said Bush, who posed for photos with donors before his speech.

Bush drew frequent applause in his 18-minute speech with references to his income tax cut proposal, his national energy plan and his education policy.

Responding to Democratic criticism that his energy proposals focus too heavily on boosting supply rather than saving energy, Bush said his plan starts with conservation.

"But California taught us a lesson," Bush said. "The state with the second-best record on conservation is the state that ran out of energy."

Bush closed by repeating his pledge to change the tone in Washington.

"Washington at times has a plenty hard edge to it," Bush told the crowd, adding that the only thing his administration can do "is control our responses."

The GOP fund-raiser followed a reception hosted by Dick Cheney at the vice presidential mansion Monday evening for about 400 top donors, most of whom previously gave or pledged to give $100,000 or more.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush supports Cheney's action and plans to thank donors and other supporters at the White House. Golfer Ben Crenshaw, who gave $873 to Bush's campaign in 1999, spent Monday night at the White House, the official said.

Campaign finance watchdog groups and Democrats criticized the use of the government property, saying it was no different from President Clinton's use of the White House or the use of the vice presidential home for events during the 1996 presidential campaign. The Clinton-Gore coffees became the focus of GOP-led congressional inquiries.

"The tactics are reminiscent of the Clinton-era coffees, but so are the excuses," said Jeff Cronin, spokesman for the watchdog group Common Cause.

CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts reports all day Tuesday, Republicans were deflecting accusations that money buys access. But a copy of the gala program circulated by Democrats reads like a who's who of special interest groups -- from Big Tobacco to energy companies that will benefit from the President's new energy policy.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the Bush administration's fund-raising tactics "night and day" different from those of former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

"In the previous administration, it was a very elaborate, ongoing, routine system to bring potential contributors to the White House for thpurpose of getting money out of them," Fleischer said. The Bush administration is simply saying "thank you" to its donors by participating in fund-raisers and related activities, he said.

Fleischer acknowledged, however, that the Republican National Committee the party's fund-raising arm — supplied lists of supporters for dinner organizers.

RNC finance chairman Al Hoffman Jr., praised donors for contributing $23.9 million at the gala, even more than last year, setting a record for the GOP. "We all read in the press the articles implying that people who give money somehow have impure motives. I decry that notion," Hoffman said. "Every dime of this money raised is to support the Republican cause."

The event's sponsors included AT&T, Bristol-Myers Squibb, PepsiCo, Philip Morris, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, the Capitol One credit card company and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

"It's a good way to participate in the process," said Peggy England, spokeswoman for the wine wholesalers association, part of the RNC's "Team 100" group of $100,000-plus donors. "It gives us the ability to meet with and to talk with individuals who are serving Congress and in the administration."

Donors, sitting under soft red, white and blue lights, dined on vegetable Napoleon, horseradish-crusted tenderloin with shallot merlot sauce, asparagus, five-onion risotto cake and key lime pie.

Bush, then a presidential candidate, also headlined last year's RNC gala, which drew $21 million.

The single-night fund-raising record belongs to Clinton and Gore, who brought in $26.5 million at last year's Democratic National Committee barbecue.

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