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Bush talks taxes in Tampa

Besides putting an election-year focus on tax policy, Bush's stop in Florida helps GOP candidates pull in more than $2-million.

By Robin Stein and Adam C. Smith
Published September 22, 2006

[Times photos: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
President Bush admires the 19½-inch biceps of Tampa Bay Buccaneer Michael Pittman during a brief visit Thursday to the Bucs' new training facility. The team presented Bush, the forty-third president, with a No. 43 "Bush" jersey.
'Never give up,' Bush advises Bucs

President Bush presents Zach Bonner, 8, of Valrico with a presidential award for his charitable organization, the Little Red Wagon Foundation.
Second presidential handshake still 'nice'

Bush shakes hands with Gus Bilirakis, who is running for Congress in a district that covers much of Pinellas County.
Katherine Harris, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, talks with Bush as he shakes hands with supporters.

View photos of Bush's arrival on Air Force One

President Bush made a two-city swing through Florida on Thursday, raising money and the spirits of two Republican candidates.

Across the country, Republican candidates have been distancing themselves from Bush before the upcoming midterm elections as the president's approval ratings have sagged while voters grow dissatisfied with his handling of Iraq and the economy.

But on Thursday as Bush traveled from Tampa to Orlando, there was no distance between the president and Gus Bilirakis, who is running for Congress in a district that covers much of Pinellas County, or Bush and Charlie Crist, who is running for governor.

Bush zeroed in on tax policy, typically a point of strength for Republicans. The issue, which Bush called a "fundamental difference" between the parties, is particularly timely in Florida. After years of absorbing hikes in property taxes and homeowners insurance premiums, residents in recent weeks have staged waves of protests in local tax offices.

"Elections are all about giving the people clear choices," Bush said in Tampa. "Do you want to keep your taxes low so we can keep the economy growing, or do we raise taxes and let the politicians in Washington try to grow the economy?"

Of course, matters of national security remained at the fore, too.

The normally soft-spoken Bilirakis seemed to burst with newfound resolve as he took to the stage just after 1 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium to introduce Bush.

"By the way, president," he said. "Thank you for making us safer."

For his part, Bush once again defended his policy of taking preemptive action to thwart terrorism.

"We've got to take threats seriously before they come home to hurt us," he said. "Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do, and the world is peaceful because of it."

As the applause tapered off, Bush quickly corrected himself: "The world is more peaceful because of it."

That is a matter of some debate, even among Republicans.

Indeed, in other circumstances, Democrats would be hard-pressed to claim any real shot at winning House races in traditional Republican strongholds such as Sarasota's District 13 and District 9, the seat Bilirakis hopes to keep in the family. (His father, Mike Bilirakis, has held the seat since 1982.)

For many Democrats those hopes are still a long shot, but leading Florida Democrats on Thursday pounced on the chance to cast Crist, Bilirakis and Katherine Harris, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, as "stay the course" supporters of the president.

"We would hope that George Bush stays in Florida the entire election," said Mitchell Berger, finance chairman for Crist's Democratic opponent, Jim Davis.

A throng of protesters waved posters near Raymond James stadium.

The price of entry for the Bilirakis event - $1,000 a ticket or $2,100 for a one-on-one photo with the president - proved useful fodder for a counterattack from Phyllis Busansky, the Democratic candidate for District 9.

Busanksy hosted a luncheon in protest on Thursday.

"If your homeowner insurance rates went up by $1,000 or more," she wrote in the invitation, "I'd like to buy you lunch - and we can discuss ways we will fight back!"

While national polls and pundits suggest Democrats' most powerful weapon is the popular discontent with Bush, Florida Republicans didn't flinch.

"I'm just proud to have him here," said Carole Jean Jordan, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "Floridians are proud to stand beside President Bush."

Among the nearly 500-person crowd gathered in Tampa were state Rep. Trey Traviesa, former Gov. Bob Martinez and embattled Senate candidate Harris.

Before the president's remarks, Harris was effusive in her praise for the president's policies and dodged questions about whether she had been invited to fly to Orlando aboard Air Force One.

The GOP establishment's support of Harris has been a matter of bitter contention for months.

In his remarks, Bush gave Harris a noticeably terse mention and afterward offered a clipped, "Thank you," as he pushed past her without making eye contact.

Later, while Crist and Bush mingled with the big-dollar guests in one reception room at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, Harris was in the $500-per-person reception down the hall.

In Orlando, Bush was joined on stage by Crist and Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. The president praised Crist, who won the Republican primary for governor on Sept. 5, as "a people's governor."

"He likes to shake hands, he likes people," Bush said. "You want somebody who feels comfortable with the people of a state, somebody who can make decisions, and somebody who can set a clear vision on behalf of this vital state. And that's Charlie Crist."

And in between the two fundraisers, Bush and Bilirakis made an unannounced stop by the Buccaneers' new headquarters just as the team was wrapping up practice for the day. As Bush mingled - signing footballs, posing with running back Michael Pittman's 19½-inch biceps - nearby Karl Rove took a moment to work on his throwing arm, his Blackberry in hand.

Though Democrats savored the chance to link Republicans to President Bush, the day also underscored the immense fundraising advantage Florida Republicans enjoy again this year.

In less than eight hours, the president helped raise more than $450,000 for Bilirakis in Tampa, and in Orlando, he brought in at least $2-million for Crist's campaign and the state Republican party.

[Last modified September 22, 2006, 01:35:08]

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