ATLANTA -- President Bush campaigned Thursday for two Republican upstarts in Georgia -- one seeking to unseat an incumbent governor, the other hoping to oust a sitting senator -- then traveled to Florida to help his younger brother’s bid for another gubernatorial term.
With control of the House and Senate at stake in the Nov. 5 elections, the president plunged with relish into the final campaign “sprint” that is expected to take him coast to coast in the next 2 1/2 weeks.
During his stop in Atlanta, Bush spoke at an $800,000 luncheon to benefit Rep. Saxby Chambliss, the GOP Senate candidate, and former state Sen. Sonny Perdue, the gubernatorial candidate.
Georgia’s closely contested Senate race has turned nasty, replete with a Chambliss advertisement that, in criticizing his opponent, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, features photographs of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Chambliss, who chairs the House subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security, used those images to attack Cleland’s opposition to Bush’s proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security.
Like most Democrats, Cleland supports the agency’s creation, but only if its employees are accorded certain labor rights. The dispute has stalled the legislation, which the Republican-controlled House has passed.
The ad outraged Democrats, in part because Cleland is a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and one arm during that war.
Cleland issued a furious rebuttal. “Accusing me of being soft on homeland defense and Osama bin Laden is the most vicious exploitation of a national tragedy and attempt at character assassination I have ever witnessed,” he said.
The Chambliss campaign has since altered the ad to remove the images of Bin Laden and Hussein.
In the gubernatorial contest, Perdue desperately needed the cash infusion provided by the Bush visit. His campaign coffers had just $450,000 at the end of last month, compared with $7.5 million for Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes.
Chambliss has reported $1.76 million in campaign funds, to Cleland’s $203,086. But a Cleland spokesman said the campaign already has paid for its television ads up to election day.
In both races, the Democratic candidates are slightly ahead in the latest polls.
During his brief remarks in Atlanta, Bush refrained from making any overtly partisan remarks. But he did remind his audience that Chambliss had voted to create the homeland security agency, which would coordinate the domestic fight against terrorism.
“There’s no question in my mind, if Saxby Chambliss were in the Senate, I would not have to worry about his leadership or his vote on this important matter,” Bush said.
The president went on to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where, accompanied by his brother, Jeb, he delivered a speech on education.
Jeb Bush is locked in a neck-and-neck race with Democrat Bill McBride, who has made education a key campaign issue and just launched a television ad attacking the governor’s record on education.
Jeb Bush introduced his brother as “America’s first advocate” for reading and education. The president returned the favor, saying that his passion for the subject is “shared by your governor.”
After the public function at Reed-Patillo Elementary School, the brothers attended a $900,000 fund-raiser for the Florida Republican Party at a residence in Daytona Beach.
Reporters were barred from the event.