STATESBORO, Ga. (AP) – President Bush has tried for months to define the midterm elections as a choice about two issues: taxes and terrorism. Now, with polls predicting bleak results for Republicans, he is trying to fire up his party by decrying gay marriage.
“For decades, activist judges have tried to redefine America by court order,” Bush said Monday. “Just this last week in New Jersey, another activist court issued a ruling that raises doubt about the institution of marriage. We believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman and should be defended.”
The line earned Bush by far his most sustained applause at a rally of 5,000 people aimed at boosting former GOP Rep. Max Burns’ effort to unseat a Democratic incumbent. In this conservative rural corner of eastern Georgia, even children jumped to their feet alongside their parents to cheer and clap for nearly 30 seconds _ an eternity in political speechmaking.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must be given all the benefits of married couples, leaving it up to the state Legislature to decide whether to extend those rights under the structure of marriage or something else, such as civil unions.
“I believe I should continue to appoint judges who strictly interpret the law and not legislate from the bench,” the president said, earning more applause in the sweltering basketball arena at Georgia Southern University.
The gay-marriage theme began appearing in Bush’s political speeches last Thursday, the day after the New Jersey ruling on a touchstone issue for social conservatives who are crucial to Republican electoral calculations. It marks one of the few substantive changes in the president’s stump speech as he turns from raising money for Republican candidates to encouraging the GOP faithful to vote on Nov. 7.
To that end, he was focusing on the South in the last days of the campaign.
After campaigning for Burns, who is trying to win back the seat conservative Democrat John Barrow took in 2004, Bush was flying to Texas to campaign for the Republican candidate for the seat vacated by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay resigned in June amid a series of investigations of his fundraising activities.
An afternoon rally at the airport in Sugar Land was expected to draw 7,000 people to support Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs’ write-in campaign to replace DeLay.
Bush’s need to appear in the conservative district south of Houston underscores the Republicans’ plight this election.
The election there is complicated. The Republicans are legally barred from replacing DeLay’s name on the ballot, so Sekula-Gibbs is running as a write-in candidate. Supporters must choose her twice, once for the special election filling out DeLay’s term and again for the general election for the next Congress.
She faces former congressman Nick Lampson, who has outraised and outspent her, giving Democrats a chance at a seat long in the GOP’s hands. A Lampson victory could help Democrats gain control of the House, and would also be sweet revenge for an opposition party that DeLay fought at every turn while in office.
On Tuesday, Bush is heading back to Georgia, a state he twice won comfortably. Tuesday’s rally, about 130 miles west of Statesboro, is aimed at helping another former GOP congressman, Mac Collins, oust Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall.
After Thursday, the president’s schedule remains fluid, as his political advisers balance the need for help in tight races against the president’s unpopularity. Polls show Democrats have a shot at gaining the 15 seats they need to win the House, and may even win the six needed to take the Senate.
Bush pleaded with Republicans not to give up – and mocked Democrats.
“This election is far from over,” he said. “You might remember that about this time in 2004, some of them were picking out their new offices in the West Wing. The movers never got the call.”
Democrats ridiculed him back, for an itinerary that took him to once-solid Republican areas.
“Clearly President Bush is more of a liability than an asset as he’s forced to stump for candidates in districts that were once considered safe for Republicans,” said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Stacie Paxton. “Voters in Georgia and Texas, like all Americans, are tired of President Bush’s failed `stay the course’ rhetoric on the economy and Iraq.”