(CHARLOTTE, N.C.) - President Bush promised not to let the war on terrorism deter his campaign to help elect Republicans to Congress and gave a boost Wednesday to the Senate candidacy of former rival Elizabeth Dole.
His $1 million fund-raising trip also reflected a growing determination at the White House to get Bush ready for an expected re-election campaign in 2004.
The president said his sights are set on November, when control of the House, Senate and three dozen statehouses are at stake.
"Somebody said to me the other day or actually asked me today, am I going to campaign? And here we are in war. Do you think it's all right for the president to go campaign? I said, yes. I do,'' Bush told several hundred GOP donors who welcomed his help with thunderous applause.
Bush kissed Dole as he arrived at the Charlotte airport and later said: "It's important that you have somebody in Washington, that when she calls into the White House, they answer the phone.''
Dole, who hopes Bush's wartime popularity rubs off on her, told donors eating lunch off crisp, white tablecloths, "We all have a president we can look up to in George W. Bush.''
Neither mentioned their contentious 2000 race.
Bush addressed the GOP crowd shortly after touting his welfare initiative that he says will press more recipients into work while offering them support services. "Helping the old man get off gambling will help'' him get a job, the president said.
He strongly defended spending taxpayers' money to teach sexual abstinence as part of the welfare plan. "We ought to shoot for the ideal in society and not get (dragged) down by the cynics,'' Bush said.
In contrast, Secretary of State Colin Powell told teen-agers recently to "forget about conservative ideas'' and use condoms as a health measure.
The White House added the welfare events to Bush's schedule in order to split the cost of his travel between the taxpayers and the Republican Party.
Aides say Bush plans to headline dozens of fund-raisers this year.
Defending his political activity, Bush cited the two GOP legislative leaders: "I think it'd be a lot easier for me to accomplish what I want to accomplish with Denny Hastert as speaker of the House of Representatives and Trent Lott as majority leader of the United States Senate.''
He is raising money for the Iowa Republican Party on Friday. Next week, he travels to Florida and Minnesota, and will headline at least one fund-raiser on those trips.
He also looking beyond November's elections to 2004.
North Carolina, Iowa, Florida and Minnesota are all states that are expected to be competitive in the presidential race. Indeed, Bush's travel schedule is almost exclusively limited to states that swing between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
A senior Bush adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House is coordinating Bush's travel, agenda, and constituency meetings to prepare for a re-election campaign. Although he has not declared his intentions, there is little doubt among advisers and associates that Bush will seek another term.
Dole, 65, faces a crowded primary field but is the heavy favorite. She served in the Cabinets of Bush's father and President Reagan, and was president of the American Red Cross before her unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.
Presidents rarely side with one candidate in a party primary race. Aides said Bush broke with tradition because he believes Dole has the best chance of winning the seat being vacated by conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
Aides also said the president felt obligated to endorse his former rival in return for what he thought was a gracious departure from the 2000 campaign.
The fund-raiser also helped Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., whose seat is important to GOP hopes to retain a fragile hold on the House.
When Dole left the presidential race two years ago, she cited the lopsided advantage held by Bush because of his multimillion dollar fund-raising operation. "The message is money and that's too bad,'' she said at the time.
Now she is turning to Bush for money.
Erskine Bowles, chief of staff for President Clinton, is the well-funded favorite in a crowded Democratic field.
In the presidential campaign, Dole cast herself as a moderate Republican on several issues, including gun control. The positions could hurt her in conservative North Carolina.
Fleischer served as Dole's campaign spokesman, firing barbs at Bush almost daily.
"The governor will make a great future president - of the American Red Cross,'' Fleischer said during the campaign.
He shrugged off the quip Wednesday.
"I think what I was saying is they both have great minds and great futures,'' Fleischer said with a sheepish grin.