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Bush finds city paved with supporters' gold

GEORGE W BUSH surfed through Washington on a wave of cash last night, adding more money to his already vast campaign funds.

The most likely Republican candidate for the 2000 presidential election attended a fund-raiser in the nation's capital which may have added as much as $1.5m to his coffers. The Governor of Texas is heading for a fund- raising total of $20m by the end of this month, a figure which will only be matched by Al Gore, his most likely Democratic rival.

The reception was not even due to serve dinner, so that more could crowd in through the doors of the Washington Hilton to pay homage to the man who could put the Republicans back in the White House again. Even Mr Bush's father, former president George Bush, never raised so much cash in one night.

George W launched his campaign just 10 days ago with swings through Iowa and New Hampshire, and has followed up with trips to South Carolina and Virginia. Next week he heads off to California, the election's El Dorado in terms of votes and cash. He has created a vast media splash and added to his finances, further entrenching him ahead of the primaries next year.

The Governor comes to Washington as the establishment candidate, with an overwhelming backing from the party's elected officials. He has now been endorsed by 20 Republican governors and more than three-quarters of the lieutenant-governors, 14 senators and 121 representatives. The guest list for yesterday's fund-raiser was a veritable directory of the Republican elite. His opponents for the Republican candidacy have tried to use this against him, but the truth is that it seems very difficult for any of them to come even close. "I think, from somebody who just observes politics for a long time, it looks like pretty much a done deal," said Dennis Hastert, the House Speaker.

Money may seal the fate of his adversaries before the public even gets to vote on them. Several - including Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee - are hard-pressed for cash and may have to drop out in the next few months. The Iowa straw poll in August will sort out the candidates, perhaps removing as many as four from the field of 11 on the Republican side.

Mr Bush has a tricky task, however, seeking to maintain his position as the establishment candidate while not linking himself too strongly to the party in Congress. It is further to the right of him, it is not well-respected around the country and it has the capacity to deliver embarrassing surprises over the next year. And his rivals depict him as a Washington insider, a black mark in a nation where politics is a dirty word. "For all intents and purposes, Washington, DC, has become a suburb of Austin, Texas," a spokesman for candidate Elizabeth Dole told the Washington Post. "It's an establishment party," said a spokesman for John McCain, another candidate. "Every lobbyist in the city will be there."

The early outings for Mr Bush and Mr Gore have done little to change their poll rankings. A Reuters poll shows Mr Bush with an 18 percentage point lead over the Democrat, unchanged from the last such sounding. But about 11 per cent of voters confuse Mr Bush with his father, the former president. And the majority of Americans are not following the political race yet: it is far too early to start picking next year's winner.