Bush brothers take stage at GOP meeting But governor of Texas, George W., says nothing about presidential plans

November 19, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS -- The hottest brother act in American politics, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and governor-elect Jeb Bush of Florida, made its national debut yesterday at a Republican conference here.

Their performance was part vaudeville, part political advance team, part rumination on Republican politics, part Smothers Brothers. They joked about everything but which one Mom liked best.

Getting together for the first time in months, the eldest sons of George and Barbara Bush embraced warmly at a closed-door gathering of current and newly elected GOP governors at a New Orleans hotel.

Later, they held a lighthearted session for cameras and reporters that was full of teasing banter but unrevealing on the topic of the Texan's presidential plans.

With the midterm elections out of the way -- and Republicans eager to forget their disappointing showing -- attention is shifting quickly to the 2000 presidential contest. For the Texas governor, who remains little known to people outside his state, events such as this are an opportunity to introduce himself to a wider audience.

His younger brother adds interest and excitement to the Texan's possible candidacy -- so long as the Florida Bush doesn't get in the way.

"I didn't grow up wanting to be president of the United States," George W. Bush told a crowded news conference. "I grew up wanting to be Willie Mays."

"I did," Jeb Bush broke in, as if to suggest that his brother had hijacked his childhood ambition.

"You did, yeah," his brother acknowledged.

As governors of two of the nation's largest states, the Bushes will be a formidable political force in the maneuvering leading up to the 2000 presidential nomination.

Their first test could be a fight for the Republican Party chairmanship. Jeb Bush is supporting the insurgent candidacy of a close associate, Florida Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade, who announced yesterday that he is challenging the current national chairman, Jim Nicholson of Colorado.

The Bush brothers deny that they are part of a conspiracy to take over the party -- or the country -- in order to restore glory to their family name.

They have, however, carved out similar stances on such issues as education reform, attempted to reach out to minority voters in their states and even adopted the same label: "compassionate conservative."

"It's either genetics or social upbringing, one of the two," was Jeb Bush's explanation for the striking political resemblance.

For the session with reporters, aides seated the two men side by side. That made the Texas governor appear almost as tall as his younger brother, who towers over him by at least 5 inches. But George W. Bush quickly undercut that attempt at image management.

"He is the tall one, and I'm the short one," the governor said by way of introducing his "little brother."

Jeb Bush, in turn, raised a subject his brother has tried several times to put to rest -- the notion that some embarrassing or scandalous event in the Texas governor's past might prevent him from seeking the presidency.

"This is an uncivil age that we live in," said Florida's governor-elect. That could make running for president "difficult" for George W. Bush's twin teen-age daughters.

"I think about the problems that President Clinton has had, and I worry about his daughters," Jeb Bush added.

His brother has expressed concern about the attention paid by the news media to politicians' personal lives, and the impact that might have on his family. But he insists there's nothing in his background beyond an overindulgence in alcohol that led him to quit drinking 12 years ago.

Investigative reporters are already digging through his past. Last weekend, the Dallas Morning News reported that Bush had broken off an engagement to a Houston socialite in the late 1960s under circumstances he refuses to discuss now.

The Texas governor said again he'll run if he decides he's willing to put his wife and daughters through the "meat grinder" of a national campaign and of life in Washington. He is to announce his decision early next year.

With $4 million left from his re-election landslide and early polls showing him the top choice of Republican voters, he remains the presumed front-runner for the presidential nomination. "Can't help it," said the elder Bush.

This week, though, he is trying hard to fit in with his fellow governors and avoid having speculation about his future overshadow their efforts here. But he measures his words carefully, mindful of the party activists who will decide the nomination race.

He went out of his way to label himself a conservative, not a moderate, and to praise retiring Rep. Newt Gingrich, who remains highly popular among conservatives.

The Texan is hardly the only one here with national ambitions. Outgoing California Gov. Pete Wilson would like to run for president. And several GOP governors have been mentioned as potential vice presidential candidates, including Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who showed up only a few days after undergoing an emergency appendectomy.

It is the Bush boys, though, who are clearly the biggest story of the three-day GOP gathering.

Aides to the Texas governor say they're aware that nothing they do can prevent some of the other governors from resenting the attention their man is receiving.

"They all have egos," said one top aide. They also are the leading politicians in their home states, men and women whose active support George W. Bush would need if and when he seeks his party's presidential nomination.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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