Jeb Bush shows strength in bid for Fla. governorship



MIAMI -- Jeb Bush had started the day with a breakfast meeting in Ocala, then flown from Orlando back to Miami for a luncheon talk with some businessmen in Hialeah. Ahead is a fund-raiser that will produce about $10,000 for his campaign for governor of Florida.

But Bush cancels two other meetings to watch his 17-year-old son, George, a left-handed hitting first baseman, play a high school baseball game. It proves rewarding.

Sitting behind home plate with a half-dozen other parents on a soft afternoon, Bush sees young George at his best -- a line drive right at the right fielder, a long home run over the fence in left-center, then a screaming smash up the alley in right center that would have netted him a double when he is thrown out trying to stretch it.

It has been a hell of a day for both the grandson and the son of former President George Bush. And, if the talk among Florida politicians can be believed, Jeb Bush has other good days ahead. At this point the 41-year-old Republican is probably a close-to-even bet both to win his party's nomination and to unseat the incumbent Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

If Jeb Bush doesn't make it, it won't be for lack of effort. He sold his interest in a development business in July and has been campaigning essentially full-time ever since.

His strategy right now is simple. He is trying to build enough of a head of steam to bluff his most potentially formidable Republican rival, state Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, out of the September primary. That might make it possible to avoid an October runoff and give him more time to run against Chiles.

Bush has the credentials to claim to be the front-runner. Building a list of 15,000 contributors, he has raised $1.7 million of the $6 million to $7 million he thinks will be required to win in this diverse and politically expensive state -- an impressive performance given the new $500 limit on contributions. The most recent Mason-Dixon survey shows him leading Gallagher and three other Republicans among primary voters and within 4 percent of Chiles in a general election matchup.

A generation ago the notion of a Republican governor was laughable. Gov. Bob Martinez was only the second in a century. But the state has been heading Republican in both party registration and voting patterns. It is a trend, moreover, that Bush helped develop in the mid-1980s when he used his position as Dade County Republican chairman to enlist new high school graduates

and naturalized citizens into the GOP in wholesale numbers.

Comparisons with his father are inevitable, just as they are for his brother George W. Bush, running for governor of Texas. In Jeb Bush's case there are some superficial similarities. Like his father, he takes a firm conservative position on such issues as abortion and school choice but may be perceived as more moderate simply because of his easy personal style.

But veterans of Florida politics who have watched both men say the differences are more significant than the similarities.

One thing that is clear, for example, is that the younger Bush is far more engrossed in the details of issues than was the case with the former president.

While watching his son perform like a Barry Bonds, he can talk knowledgeably about a whole range of issues -- street crime, education, the intricacies of alternative sentencing plans and their relationship to need for more prison space, the problems of growth impinging on established communities, the future of the wetlands, the complexity of the immigration issue. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a policy wonk.

Bush says that being his father's son can be a mixed blessing -- "I get some of my dad's baggage, for better or worse" -- because it will attract interest while forcing him to "convince people of the seriousness of my mission."

"There will be more people who will come to see me," he says, "but I'll be held to a higher standard."

It should not be forgotten, however, that the primary is still more than six months away and anything can happen. Gallagher or, less likely, one of the other Republicans -- Secretary of State Jim Smith or state Sen. Ander Crenshaw -- may catch fire. Lawton Chiles, a resourceful politician in other days, may wipe away those threatening negatives.

But early in the season Jeb Bush, like his son George, is hitting the ball hard to all fields.

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