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Bush kicks off biggest fundraiser in US history

Washington, June 18 (Reuters): President George W. Bush yesterday launched the biggest money-raising effort in US political history as he tries to turn his wartime popularity into a source of revenue for his re-election bid.

Even as he spoke at a reception in a downtown hotel ballroom for which guests paid $2,000 apiece to dine on mini-hamburgers, hot dogs and nachos, Bush sought to remain above the fray of day-to-day politicking.

“The political season will come in its own time,” he said.

The evening netted him about $4 million, the first step on the road to the record $170 million to $200 million the Bush campaign wants for the 2004 election.

“Right now this administration is focused on the people’s business,” Bush said. “We’ve got a lot on the agenda.”

Bush defended his handling of the nation’s economy and the war on terrorism. He touted his tax cuts, education reform and his efforts to keep Americans safe from attacks like those on September 11, 2001.

He called on Congress to reform the Medicare health program for the elderly, overhaul the nation’s welfare system, and pass a controversial energy plan that would allow drilling in parts of an Arctic wildlife refuge.

The $200 million goal would double the presidential campaign fund-raising record — $100 million raked in by Bush for his 2000 run — and establish the Republican President’s financial dominance over Democrats who are choosing from among nine candidates.

Republicans have wealthier individual supporters than Democrats, who benefited from large, unregulated “soft money” contributions, outlawed by a new campaign finance law that is subject to a court challenge.

It was the first fund-raising event of a busy summer for Bush, whose popularity has soared based on his response to the September 11 attacks, but who faces lingering questions about a US economy in the doldrums and the absence of conclusive evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

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