By Steve Holland and Tabassum Zakaria

President George W. Bush stumped for the Republican candidate for Florida governor on Monday but the candidate himself didn’t show, irritating the White House.

Charlie Crist said on Sunday he would not attend the rally in the party stronghold of northwest Florida after the White House had already announced Crist would be introducing the president.

The no-show a day before Tuesday’s election raised the question of whether Crist was trying to avoid being seen with Bush, whose popularity is below 40 percent as Republicans struggle to retain control of the U.S. Congress amid American unease about the Iraq war.

While Bush didn’t refer to the absence at the rally, White House political adviser Karl Rove was clearly irritated.

“All I know is that yesterday morning they apparently made a decision that, rather than being with the governor and the president and 10,000 people in Pensacola, they made it a last-minute decision to go to Palm Beach,” Rove told reporters.

“Let’s see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours notice versus eight or nine thousand people in Pensacola,” Rove said.

Crist’s staff said he was spending the day before the election campaigning in more competitive regions of the state in his tight race against Democrat Jim Davis for the governor’s seat being vacated by Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush.

Bush praised Crist at the rally as he tried to encourage a big Republican turnout.

“Tomorrow you get to vote for a new governor, and I strongly suggest you vote for Charlie Crist to be governor of the state of Florida,” Bush said. “He’s experienced, he’s compassionate, he’ll work hard on behalf of all of the citizens of this important state.”

The no-show came at the end of Bush’s five-day, 10-state swing through Republican strongholds at a time when his party saw glimmers of hope in polls suggesting some races have tightened.

Bush, accusing Democrats of wanting to raise taxes and pull U.S. troops out of Iraq too soon, was later appearing in Bentonville, Arkansas, for Asa Hutchison’s campaign for governor and in Dallas for Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election bid.

A Republican candidate who did make the rally was U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, the state official who led the ballot recount in the 2000 presidential election in Florida that ultimately put Bush in the White House.

She spoke before Bush arrived but was not on stage with him.

Harris has stumbled badly in her campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson after a series of verbal gaffes.

Florida Democrats tried to turn Crist’s absence to their advantage, with Davis scheduling a news conference later in Pensacola.

“Charlie Crist sent someone else to ask for your vote today, but I showed up here today to ask for your vote so that we can change Florida for the better,” Davis said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Michael Christie in Miami)

© Reuters 2006