TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - After avoiding the spotlight for three weeks, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is being thrust inexorably toward a more central role in his brother's struggle for the state.
As the Republican-controlled state Legislature moves toward intervention in the dispute, the prospect is growing that the governor soon might sign unprecedented legislation to directly award Florida's 25 electoral votes to his brother, George W. Bush.
Yesterday, in his most extensive public comments yet on the controversy, Jeb Bush endorsed the arguments of state Republican legislative leaders who say they have a constitutional right to directly appoint the electors if it appears the legal disputes over the Florida results won't be completed in time to assure that the state participates in the Electoral College.
"If there is uncertainty, the Legislature has clear, delegated authority from the U.S. Constitution to seek the electors," Bush said outside a meeting with his Cabinet. "Let's face it, if there's indecision about who those electors are by Dec. 12, it would be a travesty not to have electors seated at the Electoral College from Florida."
In private, however, sources close to Bush say he recognizes that the political cost could be high if he signs legislation to deliver the state and the presidency to his brother - especially if the state courts authorize further recounts that give Al Gore the lead.
"The political ramifications down the road are going to be significant, for Jeb, for W., potentially, for the whole Republican Party," said one senior political adviser to Jeb Bush. "If it looks like we are forcing this down people's throats, the 2002 election could be a blood bath." Jeb Bush will face re-election that year.
With those concerns in sight, sources say, Bush is actually more cautious about proceeding toward legislation than the aggressive conservatives in the state House of Representatives - who are leading the drive to call a special session, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.
Bush appears more in tune with the state Senate, which generally has been more cautious.
But those around him say Bush is prepared to support the Legislature - and ultimately sign the legislation - if that is what it would take to ensure the state provides his brother the winning margin for the White House.
Although Jeb Bush has kept a low profile, Florida Democrats see his fingerprints all over the legislative maneuvering now under way. Incoming House Speaker Tom Feeney, a staunch social conservative who has been the most prominent advocate of a special session, was Jeb Bush's running mate in his unsuccessful 1994 bid for the governorship, and remains a close ally.
That link alone convinces Democrats - and many Republicans - that the Legislature will not take action without Bush's approval.
Those around Jeb Bush say he is not at this point heavily involved in planning or strategizing for a possible legislative special session.
Still, both Feeney and Senate President John McKay acknowledged this week that they recently had discussed the prospect of a special session with the governor. And Feeney, in particular, seemed to suggest that Bush had encouraged him on that course.
"He is very respectful of the obligations we have as a Legislature," Feeney told reporters. "The basic tenor of his statement was: `It's not going to be like walking through a rose garden, necessarily.'"
Still, Feeney added, "He did not say: `Let's go call the special session.'"
That cautious approach has been typical of Jeb Bush since Election Day. More cerebral and less voluble than his older brother, Jeb Bush has kept his public involvement in the imbroglio to a minimum; he quickly recused himself from the state election canvassing commission, the board that certified the final results.
But observers say Bush has left little doubt about his interest in the outcome. Six Bush aides took unpaid leave to work in the Republican effort after Nov. 7.