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Bush marks date in June for Santorum fund-raiser

The President will be in Montco, showing early support for what is being called a priority race.

The White House hasn't been coy in showing its affection for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's 2006 reelection bid. Chief strategist Karl Rove went so far as to suggest that conservatives book a Motel 6 here next year and get to work.

Now, President Bush will back up his support with an appearance at a June 14 Santorum fund-raiser in Bryn Mawr, the senator's campaign confirmed yesterday.

The event's early timing and pricey tickets - $250 for entrance, $10,000 for a picture - underline Bush's focus on the reelection of Santorum, a member of the Senate Republican leadership and ally of the President's.

"This is the President's way of showing this race will be fought at the highest level," said Kenneth E. Davis, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee. "Other people will take notice and behave accordingly. They are going to have to be prepared to spend a lot of money."

The host is Mitchell L. Morgan, the founder of a real estate firm and contributor to Bush and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), though never to Santorum. The luncheon, which should net $750,000 to $1 million, appears to be Bush's first fund-raiser for 2006 candidates, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Santorum is expected to have a tough reelection fight, likely against Democratic state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., who has shown leads in opinion polls. Chuck Pennacchio, a Bucks County professor, is also seeking the Democratic nomination.

Political experts tag the Pennsylvania Senate race as the premier contest of 2006, bound to collar the attention of national donors and third-party interest groups known as 527 committees. At least one - Santorum Exposed, operated by a strategist on former U.S. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel's 2004 Senate campaign - is up and running.

The interest stems from the strong opinions that Santorum elicits from both ends of the political spectrum. To many on the right, he's the standard-bearer, venerated for his social conservatism. On the left, Santorum is viewed as a top target in 2006.

"This is just the opening salvo in a 15-round fight," said Charles Gerow, a Harrisburg Republican strategist and Santorum supporter. "I expect there will be enough celebrities passing through Pennsylvania over the course of the next 18 months to make Entertainment Weekly blush."

The choice of Montgomery County as the site for the fund-raiser might not be ideal from a vote-getting standpoint - Democrat John Kerry beat Bush there and in two other Philadelphia-area counties last year, although Santorum carried the area in 2000.

But for money, there's no better choice in Pennsylvania. "There are money-raising capitals in this country - New York is one, Chicago, L.A., and Philadelphia is one," Duffy said. A visit by Bush to the state also energizes the GOP base, political experts say.

It's unclear how Morgan became the host, although Davis mentioned one draw: "He has a house a lot of people would like to see... . A pretty outstanding structure in its own right."

Morgan, who did not return calls for comment, lives amid a few million-dollar houses. He heads Morgan Properties of King of Prussia and serves as a trustee for Temple University, his alma mater.

Morgan has strong ties to the GOP. He and his wife, Hilarie, have given more than $30,000 to candidates, mostly Republican, over the last 10 years, according to Dwight L. Morris & Associates, a nonpartisan campaign-finance analysis firm.

The list of event cochairmen also reads like a GOP honor roll: businessmen and donors Manuel N. Stamatakis, Bruce Toll, Robert R. Guzzardi and Robert B. Asher.

Bush's return to the Philadelphia suburbs can be viewed as somewhat of a thank-you to Santorum, who chaired the Bush campaign in Pennsylvania and fought in Congress for his agenda. The senator has been one of Bush's staunchest allies on overhauling Social Security, a role that Democrats criticize.

"Rick Santorum has been carrying the President's water on privatizing Social Security..., and it is no wonder the President is showing up to pay some of that debt off," said Jay Reiff, Casey's campaign manager.

People close to the President, including Rove and national GOP chairman Kenneth Mehlman, have said Santorum's reelection is a top priority.

By Carrie Budoff, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jun 2, 2005

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