THE BUSH campaign shuttled in about 350 people, each of whom had helped collect $50,000 by June 30 for his 2004 campaign. Their reward: personal attention from Bush and from Karl Rove, his top political adviser, at the nearby Hickey Broken Spoke Ranch.
Two groups that monitor fund-raising activities, Public Citizen and Texans for Justice, said the barbecue showed that campaign donors get the president's ear and favorable treatment from the Bush administration.
"These people are some of the smartest businessmen in America, and if they didn't continue to see a payback in their investment in the Bush campaign, they wouldn't continue to make these kinds of donations time after time," said Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen for Texas.
He spoke at a news conference a few miles from Bush's ranch. An inflatable White House stood behind him, marked with the sign: "White House for Sale." Secret Service agents and local authorities kept an eye on the event.
"President Bush today is hiding his big donors behind plumes of barbecue smoke," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Justice.
While individuals are limited to $2,000 contributions apiece, Bush's "pioneer" class of fund-raisers collect at least $100,000 from many donors and channel them to the campaign. This election, Bush created a new class of fund-raisers, the "rangers," who solicit at least $200,000 each.
McDonald said the Bush campaign should identify everyone attending the event, how much the campaign has credited them with raising and where they work.
The Bush campaign is not legally required to release such information about the fund-raisers, but Bush has released the names of rangers and pioneers on his campaign web site.
"The Bush campaign in 2000 set a new standard on disclosure and fund raising, and we are doing so again in 2004," campaign spokesman Dan Ronayne said Saturday. He declined to respond directly to the groups' calls for details of the Saturday event.
Asked whether the big fund-raisers get unique access to the president, Ronayne said, "People support the president because they appreciate his leadership."
One Republican noted that multibillionaire George Soros is committing $10 million to a new Democratic-leaning group aimed at defeating Bush next year. This Republican said Bush would need to counter such spending.
The $170 million Bush is raising now is for a primary in which he faces no Republican opponent. Bush will accept taxpayer money for the general election against the Democratic nominee.
One Democratic rival is trying to use Bush's Texas vacation in his own fund-raising plea. John Kerry's campaign sent an e-mail soliciting money. "We need you to help us raise $100 dollars for each of the 1,446 miles between the White House and the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas by Friday, Aug. 15th," the e-mail from the campaign of the Massachusetts senator said.
The barbecue here was closed to the news media, ensuring there would be no public images of Bush mingling with his elite fund raisers.
Bush's only public words Saturday were his weekly radio address, in which he said Iraq is making steady progress establishing its economy, basic services and a democratic system and that those advances should improve security in Iraq and the Middle East.
"We're keeping our word to the Iraqi people by helping them to make their country an example of democracy and prosperity throughout the region," Bush said. "This long-term undertaking is vital to peace in the region and to the security of the United States."
At least 55 U.S. troops have been killed in combat since Bush declared major hostilities over May 1. Four American soldiers were reported wounded Saturday, two in the northern city of Kirkuk and two in Baghdad, in attacks on their patrols.