CHICAGO -- There were gingerbread houses on the tables and lights on the Christmas trees at the White House holiday reception last December, but George W. Bush was haunted by the ghost of a Hungarian-born billionaire.
It was right before the US Supreme Court upheld the campaign finance overhaul law, and Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Lowell and a chief sponsor of the package, gently taunted the president, telling him, "Mr. President, the Supreme Court is going to rule soon on the law you and I made together."
The president, Meehan recalled, responded dryly, "Is it going to be OK for George to spend all that money?"
Bush -- whose campaign has already raised $170 million -- wasn't talking about himself. He was referring to George Soros, the 73-year-old financier who has spent some $5 billion to promote democratic principles around the world and who now says he will spend what it takes to elect a Democratic candidate in his new home country.
Soros, whose condemnations of Bush are as lavish as his bankroll, could bridge a critical fund-raising gap between the GOP and the Democrats. To Republicans, Soros is a meddler and a megalomaniac who imagines his wealth gives him the right to tinker with politics from Albania to Washington.
They are eagerly awaiting new regulations from the Federal Election Commission that might stop Soros from funding certain anti-Bush groups.
"I have made the rejection of the Bush doctrine the central project of my life for the next year . . . and that is why I am ready to put my money where my mouth is," Soros said in an interview, describing Bush as a unilateralist who has bungled the Iraq situation, alienated foreign leaders, and used the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a "pretext to pursue a dream of American supremacy that is neither attainable nor desirable."
Soros, who experienced Nazi and Soviet repression in Eastern Europe, now warns that Bush's policies will alienate the world and choke off civil liberties.
Born in Budapest, Soros left in 1947 for England, where he attended the London School of Economics, and then moved in 1956 to the United States, where he made billions as a financier and chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC.
For the last 15 years, Soros divided his time between making pots of money and giving it away, funding democracy-enhancing projects abroad through his Open Society Institute.
Amassing a fortune through clever -- some would say ruthless -- capitalist ventures, including bold currency speculations, Soros has enraged free-marketeers with his criticism of capitalism itself and of Bush's foreign policy doctrine.
Soros's most recent book, "The Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power," is an attack on Bush's preemptive military action against Iraq.
The pledge to spend millions to defeat Bush has rattled many conservatives.
Some have warned that Soros might use his investing prowess to tamper with the US financial markets right before the election to damage Bush's prospects, a charge Soros's associates dismiss as an absurd conspiracy theory. Others have accused him of comparing Bush directly to the Nazis -- a charge Soros says is based on a misinterpretation of his statements about tolerance of critical thought here -- and some Republicans charge that he is skirting the campaign-finance laws he claims to support.
For his part, Soros said he was honoring both the letter and the spirit of the law, which seeks to remove special interests from campaigns.
A Jew who lived in Nazi-occupied Hungary, Soros compares what he calls the administration's "Orwellian double-speak" to more repressive regimes.
"This development does remind me of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Communist regime," Soros said, echoing earlier comments that enrage some of his opponents.
"Comparing the actions of the president of the United States, any president, Democrat or Republican, to the Third Reich, to the Nazis, is quite troubling," said Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress. "If one is going to become a leader in our political process, you would hope that he would share the values of our democratic system and not make these ridiculous, outlandish comments."
Soros said his comments have been misused.
"My position has been distorted . . . [by people saying] that I called Bush a Nazi, which I didn't do, I wouldn't do, because I know the difference," Soros said.
Soros gets hate mail, and the Republican National Committee has sent letters to supporters warning of the threat posed by Soros's fortune.
Republicans, too, have wealthy benefactors who contribute to conservative causes, Soros notes.
So why does one rich liberal provoke such animosity?
Perhaps, Soros's admirers say, it is because Soros acts against type. He made his money through sophisticated investments and yet has been highly critical of the system that enabled him to make so much money.
"Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat," Soros wrote in The Atlantic in 1997.
And Soros gives away a great deal of his money, financing the New York-based Open Society Institute and Open Society foundations and organizations in more than 50 countries.
"To the conservatives, it's one thing if you're a highly identified liberal like Ted Turner -- it's a completely different thing if you're a captain of industry and you're saying to the public, `This is a very dangerous agenda,' " said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "It's a hard thing, I think, for conservatives to see someone like them against George Bush."
Soros has "taken a lot of grief from the Republicans for doing what he thinks is right," said Steve Rosenthal, chief executive officer of Americans Coming Together, or ACT, which has received what Rosenthal called a "critical" $10 million commitment from Soros.
In Central and Eastern Europe, the financier is regarded with gratitude and some suspicion.
The Central European University Soros established in downtown Budapest has given many in the region an opportunity to go to college.
But some in the region are not sure of Soros's motivation.
"The typical skepticism around the region is that he's just doing it to save on taxes. People don't believe in philanthropy that much," said Nicholas Sevari, an international business consultant in Budapest.
The Hungarian ambassador to the United States, Andras Simonyi, said he admires Soros's work but disagrees with him about Iraq. The Hungarian government was an early supporter of the Iraq war and has committed soldiers there.
In the United States, Bush's supporters are hoping Soros can be thwarted by a stricter interpretation of campaign finance laws.
While Soros is restricted under the McCain-Feingold Act from making unlimited contributions to political parties or candidates, he has been allowed to commit millions to organizations that run ads critical of the administration.
"I would be definitely willing to spend more. I probably will spend more, because there is such a disparity [between Democrats and Republicans] in the amount of money available for the media campaign now," Soros said. While he was "very keen on [former Vermont governor Howard] Dean," Soros said he was "delighted' to see Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts emerge as the Democrats' pick and said he would be willing to hold a fund-raiser for Kerry.
Soros has already given at least $15 million to several left-leaning groups, including the aggressively anti-Bush Moveon.org, ACT, and the Center for American Progress. He faces a challenge from those who want to limit the activities of so-called "527" organizations Soros is helping to fund; the Federal Election Commission may issue rules governing 527 groups in May.
Such organizations are not subject to the same contribution limits imposed on campaign and party committees. But Soros, who backed the campaign finance law, said he is not violating the spirit of the act.
"The purpose of campaign finance reform was primarily to remove special interests from influence, from access, and supporting 527s doesn't give me or anyone else access," Soros said. "I think I am justified in what I am doing."