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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | NEWS ANALYSIS

Jeb Bush Treads Lightly Amid Political Dangers

November 30, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

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 may sign unprecedented legislation to directly award Florida's 25 electoral votes to his brother George W. Bush.

In his most extensive public comments yet on the controversy, Jeb Bush on Wednesday endorsed the arguments of 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 seat the electors. I admire them for, at least on a contingency basis, accepting that responsibility and duty," 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 that he recognizes 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 advisor 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 reelection then.

With those concerns in sight, sources say, Jeb 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 Friday. 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.

"It's not the way they intend to win," said one senior Republican operative in contact with both Bush brothers, "but they intend to win."

Although Jeb Bush has kept a low profile, Florida Democrats see his fingerprints all over the legislative maneuvering now underway. Incoming House Speaker Tom Feeney, a staunch social conservative who has been the most prominent advocate of a special session, was Bush's running mate in his unsuccessful 1994 bid for the governorship, and remains a close ally.

That link alone convinces Democrats--and indeed many Republicans--that the Legislature ultimately will not take action without Jeb Bush's approval.

"The governor looms very large in this state. . . . He has tremendous influence over the Legislature," said Democratic House Minority Leader Lois J. Frankel of Palm Beach. "He has been appropriately low-key, but he cannot help the fact that he's the brother of George Bush. Whether it's direct or indirect, [Bush and the legislative Republicans] are on a mission to deliver [to] George Bush the state's 25 electoral votes."

Those around Jeb Bush say he is not at this point heavily involved in planning or strategizing for a possible legislative special session. Despite all the turmoil, advisors say he has not allowed the struggle to consume him and instead has focused mostly on state business. "It's not like he gets up every day and figures out how can I bend or twist something," said another of the governor's political advisors. "He thinks his brother won . . . [but] he is not quarterbacking minute to minute."

Still, both Feeney and Senate President John McKay--a somewhat more restrained, business-oriented conservative from Tampa--acknowledged that they recently had discussed the prospect of a special session with the governor. Feeney seemed to suggest 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.' "

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; for instance, he quickly recused himself from the state election canvassing commission, the board that certified the final results.

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