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COLUMN ONE : For Bush, the Sons Also Rise : Jeb and George W. are running tight races for governor. They take a harder line than their dad on their conservative agenda and campaign style.

September 20, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

BEEVILLE, Tex. — Like most Republicans here, retired oil executive Clark Bissett has long admired former President George Bush, who used to hunt quail in the fields outside this tiny South Texas town.

But when Bush's eldest son, George W., brought his campaign for the Texas governorship to a farm bureau rally here last week, Bissett assessed him an improvement on the old man. "I find him to be a little more aggressive, a little more outspoken," he said.

That description, in fact, fits both George W. Bush and his younger brother Jeb, who last week brushed aside his last challenger for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Florida.

More articulate and confrontational than their father, the brothers symbolize the tectonic generational drift to the right in the Republican Party. Although President Bush often seemed uncertain of his ideological compass, his sons are running confident campaigns sharpened on the cutting edge of conservative thought--particularly the cluster of value issues centered on out-of-wedlock births, welfare and crime.

In style and appearance, the brothers reflect traces of George and Barbara Bush, but in their language and agenda, the line of succession runs more through new-wave conservative social theorists like William J. Bennett and Charles Murray.

"This . . . blaming those of us who try to live decent lives for society's ills has got to end," says George W.

Says Jeb: "We have to dismantle the welfare state if we have any chance of solving our crime problem."

Both Bushes are locked in difficult battles against older, moderate Democratic incumbents: Lawton Chiles in Florida and Ann Richards in Texas. With polls showing both races close, each could turn on the same question: In these increasingly conservative and Republican states, will voters put more weight on ideological affinity or on experience--the card both Chiles and Richards are emphasizing?

The Bush brothers are running in a year that looks very good for Republicans, but they are also running against history: The children of presidents have rarely enjoyed much political success. James Roosevelt, the son of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a landslide loser to Earl Warren in the 1950 California gubernatorial race. Robert A. Taft, the son of William Howard Taft, won election as a Republican senator from Ohio--but three times was denied the Republican presidential nomination.

As in many families, the Bush brothers are defined mostly by their contrasts--as if Jeb, seven years younger at 41, filled in the spaces left by his exuberant, impetuous older brother. "George is aggressive, highly energetic, very quick--quick witted, quick to make decisions," says their younger brother, Neil. "Jeb is very serious, always has been. When someone presents an issue, he will study it and study it and come to a conclusion."

Born in July, 1946, George W. is six weeks older than Bill Clinton. He spent his childhood in West Texas, then followed his father's path through Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale. After college he comfortably drifted, living the high life in Houston and casting about for direction. He unexpectedly enrolled at Harvard Business School--earning an MBA--and then, just as unexpectedly, followed his father's example again and returned to West Texas to start his own oil exploration firm.

Through the 1980s, he rode the waves of the oil business with only modest success: On two occasions he was forced to find larger suitors into which to merge his struggling exploration firms--transactions that Democrats now suggest offered inflated prices to rescue the then-vice president's son. One Richards radio ad charges "every business he's ever been involved with had to be bailed out by his daddy's friends." Bush emphatically denies that any of the deals reflected favoritism.

In 1989 he organized a group of investors that bought the Texas Rangers and, although owning only a small fraction of the baseball team, was installed as managing partner. That position gave him, for the first time, an independent public identity. Now, on the campaign trail, George W. is asked as many questions about the team and the cancellation of the major league season as about his parents, and admirers sometimes present him with baseballs to sign.

John Ellis Bush, Jeb, maneuvered out of his father's tracks more quickly. Born in 1953, he also went to Andover but detoured during his senior year when, during a class visit to Mexico, he met his future wife, Columba. After Jeb graduated from the University of Texas, they married and eventually set out for Miami, where Jeb went into business with a prominent Cuban American developer he met in his father's 1980 presidential campaign.

Jeb accumulated his own fortune in the go-go Miami real estate market of the 1980s but also exhibited some lapses in judgment that have opened him to charges of trading on the family name.

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