The Sun shone on the plush grounds of the Ritz-Carlton Lodge in rolling Georgia countryside. But the resort's four championship golf courses were strangely empty for a pleasant spring weekend.
Instead, 300 of America's most powerful men and women sat in a windowless conference room to receive the thanks of their hero: President George Bush.
The 300 form part of an elite donor network that has turned Bush's campaign into the most powerful fundraising machine in US history. They are dubbed Pioneers (for rustling up $100,000) and Rangers (getting $200,000). But now, it was revealed to the gathering at the 'appreciation weekend', a new level of fundraiser was to be created.
Those Rangers able to generate another $250,000 could become Super Rangers, the cream of the cream of Republican cash cows. But they had to do it by 15 August. It is a tribute to the awesome levels of power and influence in the room that many would expect to pass that test.
But critics question what people who raise half a million dollars for the Republican cause expect in return. The secretive ranks of Pioneers, Rangers and now Super Rangers expose the huge influence of cash on US policy. Many gain positions in government. Their firms win billions of dollars worth of federal contracts. Legislation is shaped to benefit their industries.
Since 1998, Bush has raised at least $296 million (£175m) in campaign contributions. It is believed up to half of that huge sum has come from just 630 people. Last week Bush's 2004 re-election fund hit a record $200m, doubling the total set in 2000, and it is expected to top $250m. It gives the Republicans tremendous firepower.
At the center of this torrent of money lie the Pioneers and Rangers. Formed by four family friends in 1998 when Bush was still governor of Texas, they have grown into a nationwide network of influence. With its different levels, the aim is to make top donors compete for influence. 'When you do that, the sky is really the limit. They give more and more, but in the end it is all just gravy for the Bush train,' said Andrew Wheat, director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that monitors the network.
Certainly the benefits of donating seem clear. A report by the group revealed that, out of 630 elite donors from 2000 and 2004, almost one quarter were given an appointment from the administration - including 24 ambassadorships and two cabinet positions. In 2002 more than $3.5 billion of federal contracts were given to 101 companies that between them boasted 123 Pioneers or Rangers. 'We believe this is only the tip of the iceberg, too. This is only the stuff that we have been able to find out about,' said Wheat.
Nor is the campaign choosy about where its contributions come from: 146 of the donors have been involved in corporate scandals or helped to run companies that have. Most obvious was Kenneth Lay, former boss of disgraced energy firm Enron. But others have been linked to financial murkiness on Wall Street, pollution problems and even health issues. The network has 78 donors linked to campaign finance scandals.
But the success of the donor network keeps growing. The Super Rangers initiative was only announced last week, yet at least 25 are already believed to exist. However, only one name has become public. He is Alberto Cardenas, a longtime Florida Republican who now works as a lawyer and lobbyist for Tew Cardenas, a law firm with offices in Miami and Washington.
The network is extremely 'clubby' and close-knit. Four main families are at its center. First is the Bush clan itself. It boasts seven family members who have made at least Pioneer status, including Bush's sister Dorothy Bush Koch and his uncle, HT 'Bucky' Bush. Then comes Richard Egan, a Massachusetts millionaire, whose sons Chris and Michael have also made the grade. Joining them with three members each are the Fox family, who own the Harbour Group finance firm with major investments in China, and the Reynolds family of land developers. The April meeting was held on land owned by the Reynoldses.
The industries the network spans are also tightly knit. Almost 20 per cent of the elite donors come from the world of finance, while 18 per cent are lawyers and lobbyists.
Donors work hard for the cash. In order to bypass strict campaign laws limiting individual donations to $2,000, each donor 'bundles' together checks from his own circle of friends and employees. But the effort seems worthwhile.
A classic example is that of West Virginia coal baron James Harless, a Pioneer in 2000 and 2004, therefore contributing at least $200,000 to the Bush campaign. He saw his grandson appointed to a Department of Energy team looking at drawing up new policies. The Bush administration then reversed a campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that bedevil the coal industry and eased environmental restrictions on opencast mining.
'Here is where ordinary Americans are sold down the river. When donations affect policy, it is ordinary people who end up biting the bullet,' Wheat said.
Critics say the impact of the elite donors is most obvious in legislation governing energy and air pollution. Bush has eased laws governing old, polluting power plants. In many cases lawsuits against the worst offenders were finally dropped.
With cash being the key to winning US elections and industries all too keen to use it to exert influence, it seems reform is all but impossible. Certainly Democratic challenger John Kerry, who has raised more than $100m for his own campaign, is unlikely to overhaul the system.
Bush was back in Georgia last week. Accompanied by his political guru, Karl Rove, he flew in for a four-hour visit to a gated community in the suburbs of Atlanta. He hosted a garden reception at the house of Robert Nardelli, chief executive of giant retailer Home Depot. Then, Bush was guest of honor at an exclusive dinner of steak, potatoes and vegetables. It did not sound like haute cuisine, but at $25,000 per head the price tag was certainly high. When Bush left for the airport, he had racked up another $3.2m to his cause.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004