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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Suddenly, the Other Bush Son Is the One in National Spotlight

Election: Plan was for the Florida governor to serve up his state's 25 electoral votes, then fade from view. That scenario evaporated in the resulting recount chaos.

November 10, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — According to the Bush family plan, brother Jeb should have slipped quietly out of the national spotlight by now.

The first-term Florida governor was to have delivered his state's 25 electoral votes into the hands of brother George W. Bush, accepted a fraternal abrazo and then retreated to the oak-shaded governor's mansion.

And the clan's reverie might have been ever-so-slightly bittersweet for Jeb. After all, wasn't he the former president's son considered most likely to follow Poppy to the White House?

That election-night scenario, however, evaporated into chaos.

"I hope I never have to go through another evening like I did, and I'm sure the Gore family will say the same thing," Jeb Bush said Wednesday, recalling the long hours when he--and the nation--watched the vote tallies yo-yo.

Bush admitted that when it appeared that Vice President Al Gore had defeated his brother handily in Florida, which months ago was considered a sure win for the GOP, he had apologized.

But according to political experts here, Florida, with a population that is ever-changing and growing younger, was never a sure thing for anyone.

'Not the Ultimate Authority on This'

"The truth is, Floridians have never been easily led," political scientist Richard Scher said. "They are remarkably independent, so [Jeb] couldn't go around and just say: 'Vote for my bother.' I think he represented his brother well. But there is a limit to what he could expect to do."

But Jeb Bush may have realized just how central he was to the postelection drama after his brother Texas Gov. George W. Bush told Gore early Wednesday morning that the Florida governor had assured him of the integrity of the state's vote count. Gore was reported to have replied: "Let me explain something: Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this."

Within Republican circles, not to mention within the Bush family, Jeb, the youngest of former President Bush's three sons, was the one deemed best suited for national office.

At age 47, he is bright, well-spoken, well-read and very at ease in front of crowds. He speaks Spanish fluently, is an expert on Florida's arcane state policies and has become known as the "e-governor" for the extensive computerized correspondence he keeps up with politicians and citizens alike. And while conservative in his fiscal and social beliefs, the governor has been a staunch defender of Florida's environment--championing the Everglades restoration plan and opposing any offshore oil drilling.

Some political observers believe that Jeb Bush soon will be a serious presidential contender--regardless of whether his brother wins.

"I think, nationally, Jeb's stature has gone way up," said Scher, a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Even if his brother gets in, Jeb could still get a turn."

If the Texas governor loses this election, Jeb's turn could come around more quickly.

In recusing himself Wednesday from the state canvassing board, which would certify the Florida vote results, Jeb Bush said he sought "to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest." And according to University of Central Florida political scientist Susan MacManus, "Most Floridians know the governor and trust him."

But outside of the state, MacManus said, "there is a suspicion." She said she took part in two radio call-in shows--from Wisconsin and Minnesota--early Thursday and found that some voters in those states "think there [was] some kind of conspiracy" to rig the outcome.

Jeb Bush spoke to that concern Wednesday as he stood beside Democratic state Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth, who was Gore's Florida campaign chairman. "Vote fraud in our state is a felony," Bush said. "We will prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law."

John Ellis Bush was born and raised in Midland, Texas. As a high school exchange student in Mexico, he met Columba Garnica Gallo. They married after Bush graduated from the University of Texas, where he obtained a degree in just two years.

After his father was elected vice president in 1980, Jeb, Columba and their three children moved to Miami, where he joined a real estate development firm and eventually became a millionaire. In 1987, he was appointed by Florida's Republican Gov. Bob Martinez as commerce secretary and served until the following year, when he returned to real estate development. Then, in 1994, Bush won the GOP nomination for governor.

He lost his inaugural race to Lawton Chiles, but the campaign against a wily Democratic veteran served as a crash course in politicking. And Bush was an apt student. When he ran again in 1998 against Chiles' lieutenant governor, Buddy McKay, he concentrated a lot of time and money in the state's diverse minority communities--couching his conservatism in a winning personal style. He won easily.

May Be in a Win-Win Position

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