tampabay.com

Bilirakis, Busansky roll out big names

The candidates for the U.S. House are bringing in friends from high places, including the president.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published September 12, 2006


Phyllis Busansky said it has been an honor to draw so much attention from Washington.

"I am very flattered that the president of the United States is coming out to do a fundraiser for my opponent," said Busansky, Democratic candidate for District 9 of the U.S. House.

Next week, President Bush is coming to town to raise money for Republican Gus Bilirakis.

The event on Thursday Sept. 21 will be the latest in the series of Bilirakis campaign events headlined by GOP leaders, including Vice President Dick Cheney, U.S. House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert and Newt Gingrich. Already, the state legislator has raised more than $1.8-million for his bid to take over the congressional seat being vacated due to the retirement of his father, U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis.

Bilirakis' campaign is hoping between 400 and 500 people will pay $1,000 to attend the lunchtime fundraiser at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa with President Bush; for $2,100, guests can have a photograph with the president.

Busansky is not the only Democrat who seems upbeat about the president's trip.

"For Gus Bilirakis to bring in the president and stand with him simply shows that he is just a version of his father, that he will be another rubber stamp for Republicans' failed policies," said Adrienne Elrod of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's going to turn off a lot of people who are frustrated with President Bush."

More than half of Floridians think President Bush has done a poor job handling the war in Iraq, a poll conducted last month by the St. Petersburg Times found. Another 22 percent of those polled rated the president's war effort as fair.

On overall job performance, 64 percent of Floridians rated Bush as poor or fair, compared with 34 percent who said he was good or excellent.

Still, these critics are not likely to be a decisive factor in the District 9 race, said Darryl Paulson, government professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"I don't think you're going to see a tremendous amount of party switching," Paulson said. "I think what's up for grabs here is the independent vote, who make up 20 to 25 percent of the electorate."

Paulson said the other major task for the candidates will be to rouse their respective bases enough to get them to the polls.

Busansky has been busy with her own list of events and high-profile guests.

Last week was a breakfast fundraiser in New York with Bob Kerrey, a former governor and U.S. senator in Nebraska. U.S. Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania will join her for a roundtable discussion in Washington on Thursday.

Busansky and Kathy Castor, the Democratic candidate for District 11, will hold a joint press conference with former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham, where they will discuss homeland security. Afterward, Graham will be the guest of honor at a fundraising dinner for Busansky at the Tampa home of supporters Steve and Teresa Brandt, where guests will contribute between $125 and $2,100.

Paulson said that at the end of the day, Busansky will have to raise enough money to overcome the district's Republican leanings and Bilirakis' advantage in name recognition.

For months, it has been the central question in the District 9 race: How much money is enough? Liz Hittos, Bilirakis' deputy campaign manager, said that this is the reality of a 21st century campaign.

"There's a notion out there that you can never have enough money," she said.

But now, fundraising seems to eclipse discussion about the issues. The candidates were invited to participate in a debate next Monday in Tampa by the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters.

However, due to what his staff described as "a previous engagement," Bilirakis had to decline the invitation.