tampabay.com

Republican heavy hitters are batting for Gus Bilirakis

His Democratic challenger, Phyllis Busansky, has not had to bend over backward to link him to the White House.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published September 26, 2006


For many Democratic candidates, Phyllis Busansky's campaign has been a dream come true.

In an election season rife with anti-incumbent sentiment, Democrat Busansky has not had to lift a finger to tie her Republican opponent to the current Congress or to the White House. With approval ratings for President Bush at around 40 percent and for Congress a dismal 27 percent, most Republicans in competitive races are keen on emphasizing their independence.

But in District 9, Republicans have taken a flood-the-zone approach, dispatching a procession of powerhouses on behalf of her GOP opponent, Gus Bilirakis.

The district covers northern Pinellas, southern Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties. Gus Bilirakis' father, Mike, the incumbent for 24 years, is retiring.

The parade of GOP VIPs' visits culminated last week with a 450-person fundraiser at Raymond James Stadium headlined by President Bush.

The all-star revue has been lucrative, but it has also firmly aligned Bilirakis with GOP leaders who are disfavored by more than half of the electorate.

"I'm honored to have the president of the United States campaigning for me, the leader of the free world," Bilirakis said. "Do we have to agree on every issue? No, we don't agree on every issue."

Bilirakis, a four-term state legislator, has repeatedly denied allegations that he is a "rubber stamp" for Republicans.

But on Iraq, Bilirakis is in lockstep with the president.

Last week in Tampa, the president offered a vigorous defense of the war and its consequences.

"Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do," he said "The world is more peaceful because of it."

Yet a United Nations report released the previous day found that 5,106 people in Baghdad died violent deaths during July and August.

And then this weekend, the New York Times reported that American intelligence agencies found that the war in Iraq "helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism" and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since Sept. 11.

Still, Busansky has a steep climb.

Before the president's trip, Bilirakis' campaign had nearly $1.2-million on hand. In comparison, Busansky reported having just over $500,000 at the end of August.

Now with the half-million dollars the president's visit raised for Bilirakis, the gap between the two may have gone from lopsided to insurmountable.

Robin Stein can be reached at rstein@sptimes.com or 727445-4157.