Spotlights traced through a boisterous, chanting Sun Dome crowd.
The anticipation was palpable as stamping feet made a sound like rolling thunder.
They even did the wave.
Then a voice rattled over the speakers above.
“Let’s give a warm welcome,” the voice said, followed by a dramatic pause, ” for President George W. Bush.”
As the president strolled onto stage, the near-capacity crowd exploded into a deafening roar. And, with a rock-show atmosphere, Bush handled himself with the aura befitting such a gathering. He even, in true rock-star fashion, remembered to ask Tampa how it was doing.
Oh yeah, Jeb was there, too.
In fact, most of the 49-minute event, meant to be a re-election rally for Gov. Jeb Bush, turned into President Bush’s show. Jeb spoke for about 10 minutes. The president spoke for nearly half an hour.
And while Bush did indeed plug his brother for governor, far more of his time behind the lectern was spent tackling the important issues of his own office. The president talked for several minutes about a possible strike against Iraq, which is maybe the most significant and controversial proposal since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush said his main responsibility is to protect the American public. He said his war on terror is an effort to accomplish that goal.
“We’re going to hunt these killers down one at a time and bring them to justice,” Bush said.
And Bush said he wants to be able to accomplish that goal by increasing defense spending. He said he is seeking better pay and training for the troops.
“We’re in this deal for the long haul,” he said. “No matter what the cost is, we’ll defend freedom. History has called us into action, and we’re not going to tire. We’re not going to quit until we have defeated the agents of terror.”
Bush said the stakes are high and that the modern cold reality is that oceans are no longer protection. He said Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons, al-Qaida connections and is close to developing nuclear capabilities.
Bush has been accused of usurping the authority of the United Nations in the Iraqi affair. But Bush said he wants to see the United Nations succeed.
“I think it’s important we have an international body that’s got the backbone necessary to hold people (accountable),” Bush said. “Show us whether you can be an effective body keeping the peace or whether you’re going to be a League of Nations.”
Bush’s speech then reached a crescendo as he echoed a stern warning that he has repeatedly given both the United Nations and Iraq.
“The Congress has spoken with a voice that I hear and I believe. If they do not disarm Saddam Hussein and if the United Nations can’t act and (Hussein) himself will not disarm, for the sake of peace and for the sake of freedom, the United States will lead a coalition to disarm him,” Bush said to the screaming crowd.
While the president may have been relatively tactful in delivering his reasons to strike Iraq, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who opened for the Bush brothers, lived up to his bulldog reputation and left little of his opinion to the imagination.
“I know (Bush’s) mom and dad well. His mom is a great lady. His dad was the commander in chief that kicked the hell out of the Iraqis,” Schwarzkopf, who was coalition commander during the Persian Gulf War, said. “And his brother … If we have to go back and kick the hell out of the Iraqis again, (is) going to be a great commander in chief.”
Lost between Schwarzkopf and President Bush was Jeb, whose main message during his time at the podium was, predictably, about education. He said he is confident of his chances to be re-elected.
“I believe I will be the first Republican (governor) re-elected in modern times,” Gov. Bush said.
The governor said he will stay the course on education and fight for jobs. He said challenger McBride will raise taxes.
Moments after he began his comments, he introduced his presidential brother.
The president was at the lectern for barely a minute before he alluded to the war on terrorism.
“I’ve traveled the country reminding people about the American spirit,” Bush said, “the fact that no matter what the cost, we’ll defend our freedom.”
Bush followed that comment by imploring the crowd to “send Jeb Bush back to Tallahassee.”
“Jeb’s counting on your help, and so am I,” Bush said.
Bush quickly proceeded to plug several other Republican candidates and gave a mention to USF President Judy Genshaft.
President Bush gave praise to his brother’s educational record, echoing Jeb’s promise that no child would be left behind. He also characterized Florida as one of the bright spots in a sagging national economy that is “bumping along.”
“You’ve got the right man if you’re worried about the economic vitality of your state. You’ve got the right man if you’re worried about job growth. That man is Jeb Bush,” the president said.
Following his endorsement, the president briefly discussed some of his other desired reforms. He said he would like to make tax cuts permanent and begin Medicare reform.
The president spent about three minutes on those subjects before launching into his passionate, roughly 20-minute- long speech about the war on terror. He closed out that segment by saying that peace is his dream.
The president, following his warning to Iraq, gave one final plug to his brother before leaving the stage. He also asked the crowd to vote and to be compassionate toward fellow Americans.
“Help change the country one heart at a time,” he said.