PENSACOLA, Fla. – The White House flashed its irritation at a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida who chose not to appear Monday with President Bush. But if Bush was angry, he didn't show it.
"He's experienced. He's compassionate," Bush said about Charlie Crist, who was campaigning elsewhere when Bush showed up for a rally in Pensacola.
Bush urged voters to elect Crist as well as a slate of other GOP candidates, including Rep. Katherine Harris, who is mounting a lukewarm challenge to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Before the September primary, Republican leaders failed to support Harris, who sat in the audience, not on stage with Bush.
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The audience, which practiced foot-stomping to country music tunes before Bush arrived, cheered him when he noted the conviction of Saddam Hussein. They clapped when he lambasted Democrats and what he said was their lack of a plan to fight the war on terror. And they booed the Democrats when he said they want to raise taxes.
"As you're going to those polls, if you want your taxes low, vote Republican," Bush said. "And as you go to the polls, remember we're at war. And if you want this country to do everything in its power to protect you and at the same time lay a foundation for peace for generations to come, vote Republican."
With that, red white and blue metallic confetti poured over the crowd.
Bush used the last day of his 10-state campaign swing to try to motivate GOP and swing voters needed to keep Republicans sitting in the governor's offices of Arkansas and Texas as well.
It was his fifth consecutive day of campaigning, hitting states where his advisers believe he can best help fend off the Democratic threat to take over Congress and end up with a majority of governorships for the first time in 12 years.
Crist's absence shadowed the event in the Florida Panhandle. Crist said he considered the Pensacola area so firmly in his camp that it made more sense to campaign elsewhere as the race tightened to replace outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush.
White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, the president's top political strategist, mockingly questioned what kind of alternate rally Crist could put together that would rival the expected 10,000-person crowd that Bush was expected to draw at the Pensacola Civic Center. The total attendance was several thousand less.
"All I know is that yesterday morning, they apparently made a decision that rather than being with the governor and the president and 10,000 people in Pensacola, they made a last-minute decision to go to Palm Beach," Rove said.
"Let's see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours notice versus 8- or 9,000 people in Pensacola."
The White House already had distributed schedules saying Crist would introduce Bush at the rally. Jeb Bush introduced him instead.
Crist's opponent, Democratic Rep. Jim Davis, noted Crist's absence.
"Now that the president is so unpopular, Charlie refuses to stand side by side with him," Davis said. "It says when the going gets tough, Charlie won't stand up."
Crist's chief of staff, George LeMieux, said the candidate already has strong support in the heavily Republican Pensacola area and thought his time would be better spent campaigning elsewhere. LeMieux said the decision had nothing to do with the president's job approval ratings, which in two recent statewide polls were below 40 percent — similar to nationwide figures.
After Florida, Bush was heading to Arkansas where the race for governor pits Democratic Attorney General Mike Beebe against Republican Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman and federal Homeland Security official.
The Beebe-Hutchinson faceoff for the governorship already is the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in state history. Overall, Beebe, who is leading in the polls, has raised $6.3 million and spent $5.7 million. Hutchinson has raised nearly $3.3 million and spent about $3.1 million.
Before returning to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush was speaking at a rally in Dallas for Gov. Rick Perry, who is leading the polls in his re-election bid.
On Election Day, Bush plans to vote in Crawford and then fly back to Washington to wait for returns.