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Campaigning racks up miles on Air Force One

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is using Air Force One for reelection travel more heavily than any predecessor, wringing maximum political mileage from a perk of office paid for by taxpayers.

While Democratic rival John Kerry digs into his campaign bank account to charter a plane to roam the country, Bush often travels at no cost to his campaign simply by declaring a trip official travel, rather than political.

Even when the White House deems a trip political, the cost to Bush's campaign is minimal. In such instances, the campaign must pay the government only the equivalent of a comparable first-class fare for each political traveler on each leg, Federal Election Commission guidelines say. Usually, that means paying a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for the president and a handful of aides. It's a minuscule sum, compared with the $56,800 per hour the Air Force estimates it costs to run Air Force One.

It is an advantage that Bush and other presidents before him have enjoyed. President Clinton frequently was criticized by Republicans for his record-setting use of Air Force One in the campaign season, and Bush is exceeding Clinton's pace.

''It's really something that's abused," said Bill Allison, managing editor of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit government watchdog group.

''On the one hand, the president can't fly coach," Allison said. ''But on the other hand, taxpayers are in essence subsidizing campaign trips, something that goes against the grain of how the political system is supposed to operate."

The White House says it is following the law and the tradition in deciding which events are official, and thus paid for by taxpayers.

''Federal election laws set forth clear guidelines as to how costs should be incurred, and, consistent with decades of past practices, we strictly adhere to those guidelines," said White House spokeswoman Erin Healy.

Bush has logged more than 68,000 miles this year on Air Force One, all within the continental United States, except for a quick run to Mexico in January. With rare exceptions, he confines his travels to the more than a dozen states he and Kerry are fighting hardest for and to places where he is raising campaign money.

An Associated Press tally of Bush's travels shows he has made at least 114 trips in the 17 months since January 2003.

Clinton flew Air Force One on 123 trips between January 1995 and mid-October 1996, a record for reelection-related travel aboard the aircraft, said the Center for Public Integrity.

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