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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Hiding His Light Under a Brother, for Now

Jeb Bush -- seen as a presidential candidate in 2008 -- won't be going to this Republican convention, and that might be good politics.

August 28, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — This week's Republican National Convention will be a gala reunion for the Bush family, party bigwigs and the GOP's prospective presidential candidates in 2008. Conspicuously absent will be one person who fits all three categories: Jeb Bush.

Younger brother of the president, governor of the biggest battleground state and the Bush brother long considered by family and friends as the most likely heir to the family dynasty, Gov. Bush is staying home -- far from the parties, policy lunches and state delegation breakfasts that will draw his parents, siblings and even his own son George P., who is expected to address the convention.

Nor will Jeb Bush be rubbing elbows with such potential presidential candidates as New York Gov. George E. Pataki, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Bush says he needs to remain in Florida because of Hurricane Charley, which cut a swath of destruction through the state two weeks ago. But close associates, as well as the governor himself, say he never really wanted to go to New York -- and that he honestly has no interest in seeking the White House in 2008, at least not now.

"I just don't like all that big dog, big-foot national stuff," Bush said of his decision to stay home. "I don't consider it part of who I am or what my job is."

Who he is and what his job should be -- especially in relation to his brother the president -- is almost the stuff of novels: two brothers with very different temperaments pursuing eerily parallel careers, with a personal relationship that was sometimes close and sometimes not, yet who were continually bound together out of political necessity.

Rejecting the chance to be in the spotlight may seem odd for any politician, particularly the governor of a big state, particularly the one that decided the 2000 election.

But it's vintage Jeb Bush, and it may be good politics.

Last year, asked about the possibility that he might face New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in a 2008 race of epic political proportions, he rolled his eyes and said sarcastically: "Great. I could be on the cover of People magazine."

Bush doesn't need to chase the spotlight the way most other politicians do, since his name is already a household word and he has instant access to the nation's most potent fundraising machine for any future presidential campaign.

There are personal reasons, however, for him to shun the spotlight right now.

His family life remains difficult. His daughter, charged in 2002 with trying to use a forged prescription, has undergone extensive treatment.

Also, associates say the governor's wife, Columba, is uncomfortable in her role as first lady, dislikes the spotlight and would resist stepping up to the national stage.

Even the political realities dictate a low profile. Though Bush easily won reelection as Florida's governor in 2002, polls show him to be a polarizing figure in his state, with a tenure marked by legislative victories but also controversies such as the alleged disenfranchisement of black voters and a social services agency that had been mired in scandal.

Bush's absence from New York also does his brother a potentially critical favor: keeping Florida low-profile in a week when the GOP is loath to relive the images of the contested 2000 election.

The White House is not eager for the media to compare the brothers and buzz about a family dynasty.

Whether or not George W. Bush wins reelection, it is unclear how the country's electorate would react to the prospect of three President Bushes in close succession.

Even Jeb Bush's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, told a gathering of White House staffers this year that two Bushes in the White House might be enough for now.

Some suggest the governor might not want to run as his brother's immediate successor.

U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), Jeb Bush's running mate in a failed 1994 bid for the governor's office, said budget deficits, a shaky economy and a protracted war on terrorism during President Bush's term made 2008 unappealing.

"Unless President Bush really has some slam-dunk victories on the domestic front and the international front, Jeb is going to want some time to pass," Feeney said.

That's a disappointment for Stephen Moore, president of the pro-business group Club for Growth, who said he had lobbied the 51-year-old Florida governor to run.

Unlike President Bush, who has come under fire from fiscal conservatives for rising deficits and what some say is a tenuous commitment to their cause, Moore said the Florida governor was regarded as an ideological soul mate who pushed aggressively for tax cuts, school vouchers, lawsuit limits protecting businesses and an end to racial quotas.

Religious conservatives hailed his controversial move last year to override courts and order doctors to reinsert a feeding tube into a brain-damaged woman who had been comatose for more than 14 years.

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