NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – President Bush sought yesterday to bolster his brother in a surprisingly tough gubernatorial campaign in Florida, a state critical to his own re-election hopes.
He also tried to help a Republican Senate candidate make terrorism a political issue in Georgia.
Bush stepped off Air Force One and into the embrace of his younger brother, the Florida governor, who is in a close race with Democratic challenger Bill McBride.
Education is a key issue in the race, thus Bush spoke at a nearby elementary school to promote his administration’s agenda.
“The passion and vision I just described is shared by your governor,” the president told students and teachers at Read-Patillo Elementary School before headlining a $1 million GOP fund-raiser.
“I know him well. I know his heart. I know his strength of conviction, and I know his visions,” he added.
Democrats’ hopes are rising that they can beat Jeb Bush as a warmup to challenging the president in 2004. The Florida contest is also a political grudge match, with Democrats driven by memories of George Bush’s recount victory here over Al Gore in 2000.
A defeat for Jeb Bush would be a personal embarrassment to the president, raising questions about his ability to transfer political capital to even his closest allies.
This was Bush’s 11th visit to Florida as president – a 12th is likely before the election – and he has raised more than $7 million for his brother’s campaign.
A McBride victory could hurt the president’s re-election prospects because a Democratic governor would be an enormous asset to whoever is nominated to challenge Bush.
Republicans are already expected to lose several governor’s seats Nov. 5, many in vote-rich states.
Jeb Bush, once thought by his family to be the presidential heir apparent, appeared to be coasting to re-election but McBride has erased his once-formidable lead in the polls.
The governor told the school crowd, “We are so proud of the president’s leadership in the fight against evildoers.”
Terrorism was the theme in Georgia, the president’s first stop, as Bush raised $900,000 for Republican gubernatorial candidate Sonny Perdue and Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss.
Chambliss is accusing Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of thwarting a Bush-backed bill to create a Homeland Defense Department, a charge the president seconded yesterday.
“There’s no question in my mind if Saxby Chambliss were in the Senate, I would not have to worry about this vote,” Bush said.
The Chambliss-Cleland contest could determine whether Democrats retain their one-vote majority in the Senate. It also illustrates how Republicans hope to keep terrorism and homeland security on the political front burner.
The GOP has criticized Cleland’s position on the homeland security bill in an ad that included a photo of Osama bin Laden, the fugitive terrorist leader, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Bowing to pressure, Republicans edited bin Laden and Saddam out of the ad.
Cleland’s spokesman on Thursday accused Chambliss of “exploitation of a national tragedy.”
A triple amputee Vietnam War veteran, Cleland backed creation of the department before the president did and voted for Democratic-drafted legislation to establish the new agency when it cleared a Senate committee this year.
But he was on the opposite side of Bush on several amendment votes in committee as well as on the Senate floor, where the legislation is stalled.
Most of the amendments related to civil service rules and labor protections for employees of the new department, the disagreement that has blocked passage of the measure.
A thunder of applause filled the Atlanta hotel room as Bush shook his fist and pledged to defeat terrorists.
Lowering his voice to a whisper, the president then accused Senate Democrats of imposing too many restrictions on the proposed department.
“The Senate leadership wants to roll back that (presidential) authority in a time of war for one department whose job it is … to protect the American people during that war,” he said as a hush fell over the crowd.
Bush denounced Saddam anew during his two-state campaign swing but did not mention North Korea or the stunning news of its no-longer-secret nuclear weapons program.
White House officials said the president stayed quiet to avoid comparisons between North Korea and Iraq, which would undermine his drive to oust Saddam.
While in Florida, Bush also spoke by satellite to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting in California.