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Mrs. Bush in town to stump for husband

Spot at dinner runs $20,000 per plate

Laura Bush sweeps into Boston today to rally Republicans at a $20,000-per-plate fund-raiser that is expected to collect between $1 million to $2 million in the home state of her husband's Democratic rival.

The luncheon at the Four Seasons hotel will be hosted by Richard J. Egan, the billionaire founder of EMC Corp. and chairman of the Bush-Cheney finance committee in the state, and by other Massachusetts supporters of President Bush. Governor Mitt Romney and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey will also attend the event. Romney is expected to introduce Laura Bush to diners.

The Four Seasons event will follow a morning appearance by the president's wife and the governor at the George F. Kelly Elementary School in Chelsea, where they will observe a first-grade reading lesson and participate in a roundtable discussion with teachers. Mrs. Bush, who has campaigned throughout the country this year for her husband, will attend a similar event this afternoon in Portsmouth, N.H.

"She is busy," said Ali Harden, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign. "People at all of these venues have been so excited to see her and hear her message. She is an effective fund-raiser and messenger for the president's reelection effort."

The event will be the state's second big Bush fund-raiser this year. In March, the president appeared at a fund-raiser that netted $1.2 million for his reelection campaign. Since then, Romney has raised his national profile and stepping in as Bush's surrogate in the state. Just this week, Romney appeared at the State House to criticize presumptive Democratic nominee John F. Kerry's choice of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate.

Today, as Laura Bush is helping the Chelsea first-graders sound out their words, a group of Democratic legislators, and Latino activists will be protesting her husband's education policies at the nearby Williams Middle School.

"We are going to have an alternative press conference to point out the fact that George Bush has shortchanged America's children over the past four years," said Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. "The reality is, the Bush administration has shortchanged the No Child Left Behind Act by $27 billion. The president promised the country that he would fund it fully, and then he proceeded to break his promise."

Johnston said the Democrats' event would be held away from the school where the president's wife is appearing because, in addition to the difficulties created by her security detail, "I think it would be offensive or inappropriate to challenge Mrs. Bush during her press conference."

"She is not the problem," he said. "The problem is her husband's administration. We want to welcome Mrs. Bush to Massachusetts, but we also want to make the point that there are millions of poor children in this country not receiving the education that she was able to provide her own children."

Laura Bush has taken an increasingly prominent role in rallying supporters for her sometimes embattled husband, particularly as polls show his support from women weakening.

She has been appearing more frequently to help her husband, reminding voters of the priorities -- education, for example -- that sold Bush to women in the 2000 election, but which have been submerged recently by matters of war and national security.

She will find a welcoming audience at today's luncheon.

Massachusetts, long considered a bastion of the Democratic Party, has been generous to Republicans in recent years. So generous, in fact, that the word has gone out that today's guests need not all contribute as much as $20,000: the party will accept contributions of $15,000 from donors who have already made large donations. (The minimum for today's event is $25,000 for couples, GOP officials said.) The limit on individual gifts is $25,000 under campaign finance rules.

The funds will be raised for Victory 2004, the Republican National Committee program that mobilizes voters for Republican candidates across the country.

Laura Bush has been headlining fund-raising events for the Victory 2004 fund for several months, said a spokeswoman at the RNC. Recent Laura Bush events in Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Greenwich Conn., and Omaha have netted almost $2 million for the fund.

She has also headlined events to raise money for the Bush-Cheney campaign, raking in about $5.5 million for the reelection effort between June 2003 and February 2004, Harden said.

On July 15th, Mrs. Bush will be speaking via conference call to what organizers hope will be hundreds of "Party for the President" house parties.

The nationwide event is designed to "spread the president's optimistic message, recruit volunteers, and energize grass-roots supporters," she said in an e-mail message to supporters yesterday. "I look forward to speaking with you."

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