The Florida gubernatorial contest has been a grudge match from the start, with Democrats hungry to avenge Al Gore's loss there in 2000, a defeat that cost him the presidency.
A poll this week showed Gov. Jeb Bush in a statistical tie with Democrat Bill McBride, who defeated former Attorney General Janet Reno in last month's primary. A Bush loss would deeply embarrass the president, and cloud his own prospects for re-election in 2004. The state carries a rich cache of 27 electoral votes in the next presidential election, up from 25 in 2000.
The president opened his record-breaking campaign-cash drive this year with a fund-raiser for his brother, and has hauled in $7 million in a series of visits. Thursday, he was heading to the Daytona area in his 11th visit as president to Florida, and a 12th could occur before Nov. 5. The White House closed the fund raiser to the press.
McBride attacked Jeb Bush's record on education in a new television commercial this week. The Bush brothers were highlighting education with an appearance at an elementary school in New Smyrna Beach, Fla.
Democrats are trying to raise $10 million in the final weeks of the campaign, mainly to pay for ads in support of McBride.
The Democrats pounced on the president's return as evidence that Gov. Bush was "pushing the panic button" in the fierce contest. Florida Democratic Party Chair Bob Poe called the trip "an attempt by the Bush brothers to prop up a campaign that is bumbling, stumbling and fumbling."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president "is confident his brother is going to win re-election because of his proven record."
The president, on the final leg of a nearly continuous tour for Republican candidates, was starting his travels Thursday with a 40-minute fund-raising appearance in Atlanta for Sonny Perdue, the cash-strapped Republican trying to topple Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes.
The Perdue campaign had just $450,000 in its treasury at the end of last month, compared with Barnes' $7.5 million. Barnes holds a slight lead over Perdue in a recent poll.
The event was also to benefit Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss, who is also trailing in his bid to oust a Democratic incumbent, Sen. Max Cleland.
According to reports filed this week, Chambliss has more cash in the bank, $1.76 million to Cleland's $203,086. Cleland spokesman Jamal Simmons said the campaign had already paid for its remaining television ads leading up to Nov. 5.
At a time when Iraq and terrorism are dominating the debate in Washington, Chambliss is trying to cast himself as tougher on homeland security than his rival. But Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran, said a new Chambliss campaign ad crossed the line.
The Chambliss ad features cameo appearances by Osama bin Laden and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The ad charged that Cleland "says he supports President Bush at every opportunity. But that's not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland has voted against the president's vital homeland security efforts 11 times."
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.
By Scott Lindlaw