Bush campaigns to the end

Monday, November 6th 2006, 3:22 am
By: News On 6

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) The closer the election came to the finish line, the more President Bush's aides battled the perception he was doing his party as much harm as good and was unwanted in many races.

On Monday, Bush jetted to a conservative corner of Florida's Panhandle, about as far as he could get from the state's three in-play House districts. To the White House's embarrassment and irritation, Republican Charlie Crist, whom Bush came to help in his bid to succeed the president's brother as governor, decided at the last minute to skip the chance to be by the president's side.

In a speech bracketed by raucous foot stomping to country music and an explosion of metallic red white and blue confetti, Bush won cheers for applauding Saddam Hussein's conviction, lambasting Democrats on the war on terror and accusing the opposition party of plotting to raise taxes.

"The Democrats' philosophy is this: If it breathes, tax it. And if it stops breathing, find their children and tax them," Bush shouted.

Next up was Arkansas, where Republican Asa Hutchinson remained well behind in his race to keep the governor's mansion in Republican hands. Bush kept upbeat, talking of a party "roarin' into Election Day."

Finally, he wrapped up the last campaign of his political career Monday night in Texas. It was somewhat of a sentimental stop, taking him to his home state, where he is more popular than he is in many other regions.

It was still remarkable that, with so many Republicans around the country facing too close to call races and with GOP majorities in the House, Senate and the nation's statehouses in jeopardy, Bush decided to spend capital on GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who hardly needed the president's assistance to get re-elected.

"It's been a tradition in our family that we always end up the last stop in Texas, and there's a reason why," said Bush, wrapped in the adoration of about 10,000 supporters at the aptly named Reunion Arena.

He wasn't welcomed by all. "Worst President Ever," said one of the banners held by protesters outside.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush's travels on Monday to races more on the periphery of this high stakes midterm campaign were nothing more than honoring "long standing promises" to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (his brother), Hutchinson (a former top Bush administration official) and Perry (the president's successor in Texas).

But Bush's final five day sprint to Election Day took on little of the urgency of the last days before the 2002 midterm election, or certainly the close of his own re-election race two years ago.

He's been starting later in the day and finishing by bedtime, with just one stop on Saturday and two on Sunday, all in smaller, very GOP friendly areas. For the campaign's final three nights, he even slept in his own bed in Crawford, Texas.

Republican leaders say that the president's get out the vote push in GOP strongholds was helping. The free media coverage that accompanies a presidential visit was keeping his party from having to spend precious dollars in those districts. And some polls showed a lift in Republican enthusiasm for voting.

"The president's travels are part of the difference," Snow said.

White House aides mocked Crist's choice to duck the Bush rally, which they only learned about on Sunday morning, too late to change the printed schedules that had Crist introducing the president.

Crist chief of staff George LeMieux said the conservative Pensacola area was so firmly in his camp that it made more sense to campaign elsewhere in the state. Said Crist, "I'm glad he's come to our state, but I've got to get around Florida."

Still, Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, suggested that reporters see whether Crist would be able to hastily assemble anything like the Pensacola event, which drew about 7,000.

Bush ignored the dustup. "I strongly suggest you vote for Charlie Crist to be governor of the state of Florida," he said.

With Crist as a no-show, Bush was joined on stage by a host of Florida Republicans, but not by Republican Rep. Katherine Harris. She has run a much panned Senate race that has had her Republican elders cringing and both the president and his brother keeping their distance. After appearing as a warmup speaker before Bush arrived, Harris was given a spot in the audience well out of any camera shot of the stage.