Bush, his aides now project, will raise $30 million in the first six weeks of the re-election effort, a sum likely to surpass the combined total raised in the past three months by the nine Democratic presidential candidates. You have to go back to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election if not the William McKinley era of business dominance of politics to recall such a disparity between Republican and Democratic coffers. The difference, says Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, who helped Clinton get re-elected in 1996, gives the President "a breathtaking advantage." By the time the general election begins, Bush is likely to have banked as much as $200 million twice the amount he raised in 2000, which itself was a record.
Bush has Oliver to thank for much of that success but rarely praises him in public. And that's how Oliver likes it. He's the financial wizard behind the curtain. It's a role Oliver played for Bush in 2000 and one he is reprising this year, having just moved from the Republican Party to be deputy finance chairman for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. Being outside the White House, Oliver avoids any taint of seeming to influence policy. And yet he carries the weight of being close to top presidential adviser Karl Rove and of speaking for the President.
Oliver comes by his calling naturally. Born into a Republican family, he grew up in Rush Limbaugh's Mississippi River hometown of Cape Girardeau and became pals later in life with the conservative radio star. Oliver stretched out his time at the University of Missouri law school to work for, among others, Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, now Bush's Attorney General.
Oliver brings a military-style discipline to the task of fund raising. Nothing is left to chance. (At home, he keeps a needlepoint from his grandmother that reads, "I'm so used to being nervous I get tense when I'm calm.") In advance of a recent Washington event, fund raisers were promised a picture with the President if they hit their quota of $20,000 each. Five days out, Oliver called to lay down the law. "We're going to be tight" on the photo rule, he warned. For an additional $30,000, a fund raiser landed an invite to Bush's ranch this summer but only if the cash was deposited by the end of June. No pledges. No checks dated at the last minute. The system was so strict that collectors were given individual tracking numbers to put on checks to make sure they got credit.
Oliver has fine-tuned the structure he inherited from the 2000 campaign, and built on a core group of fund raisers called Pioneers who each brought in $100,000. Instead of disbanding the group after Bush won, Oliver nurtured it. After victories by Ronald Reagan and the first Bush, "we left people alone for a couple of years," says a G.O.P. lobbyist, who noted that Oliver "made people feel they were part of a network that never ended." If your kid needed a photo with the President, Oliver made it happen. He kept in touch with fund raisers by conference call and e-mail and rallied them for the midterm election, writing gracious thank-you notes in his trademark blue felt-tip pen. After Congress doubled the gift limit to $2,000 a pop, Oliver helped institute a higher tier of fund raiser: the Rangers, who each raise $200,000 or more.
The network has done surprisingly well in midsize cities, usually relegated to the minor league of campaign finance. Just as the NFL discovered it could profitably run football teams in smaller markets, Oliver and his colleagues realized that these towns were ripe with donors who would pay big money even for presidential surrogates. Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker was concerned last month about the Laura Bush fund raiser he was host to, as luncheons sometimes don't do well. No matter. The event hauled in $500,000, double Chattanooga's previous political fund-raising best. "I've never been involved in anything easier in my life," Corker says.
As many predicted, the Republicans and Oliver have been helped by the campaign-finance reform enacted last year. Championed chiefly by Democrats, the law bans soft-money donations unlimited sums given to political parties mostly by corporations and raises the ceiling on hard-money gifts by individuals. Republicans have a bigger and wealthier donor base, so they have been better at the new, purely hard-money game. The Democrats, with a smaller base, depended on a short list of deep-pocketed donors who wrote large soft-money checks.