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THE NATION

Benefit of a Name Is Relative

Term limits put Gov. Jeb Bush at a crossroads. His assets give him a prime spot in the GOP for 2008. But his family ties could be a problem.

May 14, 2006|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Every second, a digital clock on Gov. Jeb Bush's desk counts down to the moment in January that his term ends, a reminder that one of the most powerful figures in American politics is about to step off the public stage.

On one afternoon this month -- with 241 days, three hours and 20 minutes to go -- the fading term was on the minds of some important supporters as well. A group of Christian activists had gathered near Bush's office to commemorate the National Day of Prayer. "Four more years," one worshiper called out as Bush prepared to address the group. "Don't I wish," replied the master of ceremonies, a local Christian organizer. A murmur of approval rose from the crowd.

The moment was another reminder of the unique conundrum facing Bush, who is barred by state law from seeking a third term. With the 2008 race for president now wide open, Bush has what every potential Republican candidate covets: national name recognition, access to his family's powerful fundraising machinery and, as the gathering of Christian supporters illustrated, a sterling reputation among the core of the GOP base. One recent poll reported his approval rating across Florida at 63% -- a strong position in what is the nation's most populous battleground state.

And yet the very factor that fosters many of these advantages -- the Bush family name -- is holding this Bush back. With his older brother, President George W. Bush, showing approval ratings that are among the lowest of any modern president, many GOP activists and strategists believe the nation would not elect another Bush, at least not now.

Even so, some players in the 2008 campaign appear to find Jeb Bush's political capital too tantalizing to ignore.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an early front-runner for the presidential nomination, flew to Tallahassee in December for a private lunch with Bush at the governor's mansion, fueling the notion of a McCain-Bush ticket. Advisors to both men acknowledge that such a pairing would help McCain court skeptical conservatives, who will be crucial in GOP primary races.

The Family Research Council, an influential evangelical activist group, has invited Gov. Bush to appear at a fall conference of "values voters," along with would-be presidential candidates.

President Bush himself added to the speculation over the governor's future during a stop in Florida last week, saying that his brother would make a "great president" but that Jeb had deflected private questions on the topic.

And the Florida governor is showing signs of a promising future after the countdown clock hits zero. He recently revived his private policy foundation to promote school vouchers and other conservative ideas, raising more than $1.5 million from corporations and friends. He took the unusual step of endorsing a candidate in the Ohio Republican gubernatorial primary, backing eventual nominee Ken Blackwell and earning political chits that could be useful later in another important presidential battleground state.

The idea of a continuing role for Jeb Bush is delighting some conservatives, who are eager for alternatives in a crop of 2008 hopefuls that has yet to excite many in the party base.

"There clearly is a vacancy thus far in terms of a Republican candidate that conservatives can rally around," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "Until that is settled, there will be speculation swirling around Jeb Bush."

Bush has told his closest friends and supporters that he does not intend to run for president in the next election, and Perkins and other conservative activists say they take him at his word. But some strategists are eyeing his value as a running mate, particularly for candidates such as McCain, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who are viewed warily by coveted evangelical voters.

"Jeb Bush will be on anyone's short list," said Mark McKinnon, a strategist for President Bush who is advising McCain and accompanied the senator on his Florida trip. "He's got incredible experience, unqualified conservative credentials, and he brings Florida. It's the trifecta.

"With his accomplishments," McKinnon added, "Jeb Bush would overcome any hangover effect or fatigue" associated with the family name.

Bush's star appears to be high even while his power is declining in his own Capitol. He recently suffered embarrassing losses when Republican senators refused to enshrine his controversial private-school voucher program in the Florida Constitution and when the outgoing speaker of the state House, Republican Allan G. Bense, declined aggressive appeals by Gov. Bush and the White House to enter the U.S. Senate race.

Nationally, his reputation was colored by his push last year to keep a brain-damaged woman on life support over the objections of her husband. Polls showed that the general public objected to Bush's actions to keep Terri Schiavo alive. But his stance endeared him all the more to Christian conservatives.

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