President Bush's appearance at the Republican National Committee event Tuesday night came as the White House fended off criticism about congressional Republicans' use of a Sept. 11 photo of the president to reward donors who responded to a fund-raising solicitation.
CBS Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts reports that White House officials said Tuesday that they couldn't understand what all the fuss was about and suggested that it might just be Democrats having a hard time with Mr. Bush's popularity.
The White House defended the Republican Party's use of the Sept. 11 photo to make money, while Democrats branded the GOP tactic "grotesque."
Mr. Bush made no specific comment on the photo last night as he gave on speech on his administration's priorities and posed for new photographs with Republican National Committee donors who turned out for the event.
"A year ago, I said I would do my part to try to change the tone in Washington, D.C., to try to get rid of the needless name-calling that goes on here," said the president. "I believe, and I strongly believe, we've made great progress."
His press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said the White House was consulted before the fund-raising solicitation and was not concerned about the use of photos showing "the president doing his job for the American people."
President Bush's rival in 2000, former Democratic Vice President Al Gore, said the president should not condone such use of a Sept. 11 photo.
"While most pictures are worth a thousand words, a photo that seeks to capitalize on one of the most tragic moments in our nation's history is worth only one - disgraceful," said Gore, whose fund-raising was criticized by Mr. Bush during the campaign.
The photo, taken by a White House photographer, shows President Bush calling Vice President Cheney aboard Air Force One just hours after the suicide hijackers struck New York and Washington.
It was promised in a fund-raising solicitation, first reported by The Associated Press, as part of a three-picture set for donors who gave at least $150 for a fund-raising dinner next month for GOP congressional candidates.
Republican donor James Williamson said he didn't think Republicans should use a Sept. 11 photo that way.
"I personally think it's wrong to take advantage of what happened on 9/11. I also think what the president has done after 9/11 has been 100 percent correct," said Williamson, managing director at Chesapeake Capital Group in Baltimore, who attended the RNC gala. "But I think to use a tragedy, whether it be Oklahoma, whether it be Elian Gonzales or 9/11, as a fund-raiser, I think it's in bad taste."
Sara Lilygren, also a Republican donor, said she wasn't offended by the GOP's use of the photo. Sept. 11 has meaning for people of both political parties, she said.
"If it means something to you, great, if it doesn't mean something to you, walk away from it or select something from behind Door Number One or Number Two," said Lilygren, an American Meat Institute lobbyist attending the RNC gala.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and its House GOP fund-raising counterpart defended use of the photos.
"The photographs that were used by the Republicans are celebratory, they are historic, they are something we should be proud about, the courage put forth by this president," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who leads the Republican fund-raising effort for Senate candidates.
A GOP mailing hailed the pictures as showing "the gritty determination of our new president at his inauguration; a telephone call from Air Force One to Vice President Cheney the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001; and President Bush's historic State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress that united a nation and a world."
A Republican official said the photos were licensed and therefore not believed to be the work of an official White House photographer.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said it was "nothing short of grotesque" to attempt to raise money off the terrorist attacks.
"We know it's the Republicans' strategy to use the war for political gain, but I would hope that even the most cynical partisan operative would have cowered at the notion of exploiting the Sept. 11 tragedy in this way," McAuliffe said.
At Ground Zero in New York City, everyone had an opinion about the photographs.
"It's completely inappropriate, but it's standard cynical political calculation," said Henry Tupper
Mr. Bush has campaigned aggressively to raise money for GOP candidates, hoping to win back the Senate for Republicans and retain control of the House in the November elections, while laying the groundwork for his own re-election in 2004.
The $30 million he helped raise Tuesday night - surpassing the previous single-night record of $26.5 million set in 2000 by then-Democratic President Bill Clinton and Gore - comes on top of at least $26 million raised on the road for Republican candidates so far this election year.
Congressional Republicans hope the dinner he is to headline next month will bring in $20 million or more.
Cheney has also helped with GOP fund-raising. Bush noted in his speech to donors that while Cheney did not attend the RNC dinner, he did have lunch Tuesday with GOP contributors.
Other Bush administration officials who were on the schedule of meetings with donors included Bush political adviser Karl Rove, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman and Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Mr. Bush told donors Tuesday night that he is dedicated to helping the GOP keep its House majority and regain Senate control this fall.
He also thanked grass-roots workers, whose efforts to help get out the vote will be crucial this fall and become even more important if a new law banning a type of contributions known as "soft money" that parties use for such activities takes effect after the fall election.