WASHINGTON — Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and brother of President Bush, has decided not to run for the U.S. Senate, ending weeks of speculation that he would try to preserve a family power center in the nation's capital.
In contrast to his older brother, Jeb Bush left office with high approval ratings and a reputation as a master of policy. He was considered the strongest contender for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Mel Martinez in 2010.
Bush's decision forces the GOP to defend a seat in a onetime Republican stronghold where Barack Obama's presidential effort has built potent Democratic campaign machinery.
"There was a lot of support, and support from interesting places," Bush said in an interview, "but this would have been a big detour in my life."
Bush said he intends to focus on his growing portfolio of business ventures and to devote time to his family. He spent much of Tuesday calling friends and supporters to give them the news.
Still, the former governor said he would continue to advocate for conservative ideas, and he offered a bit of advice to fellow Republicans: Don't target the new president with the same kind of partisan attacks that he said Democrats had hurled unfairly at his brother -- attacks that he summed up as "Bush-hating."
"The opposition should be about ideas, and not what my brother suffered through in the last eight years," he said. "I don't wish that on President Obama."
Bush said he had been impressed so far with Obama's appointments and called the president-elect someone who is "smart, disciplined, not rash."
Republicans from Washington to Miami and Texas -- including Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush -- had hoped that Jeb would jump into the Senate race.
Most experts believe he easily could have raised the needed funds and re-energized his once-powerful political machine in Florida. And, in a twist, many said that Bush's combined policy expertise and political acumen could have helped him forge a rebuilding plan for a Republican Party left in disarray at the conclusion of his brother's tenure.
Bush is particularly popular among evangelicals and other conservatives. He also scores high marks with Latinos, a fast-growing group that has been abandoning the GOP.
George H.W. Bush told Fox News over the weekend that he saw the Florida Senate seat as a possible precursor to another Bush winning the White House. And many observers of the Bush family long have speculated that it was Jeb who would have been president now -- if not for his surprise loss in the 1994 governor's race combined with his brother's upset win that same year in Texas.
Jeb Bush did not speculate Tuesday about the possibility of a presidential run, although friends said his decision not to seek Martinez's Senate seat did not preclude a future campaign.
So it appears for now that the Bush era in national politics will end when the president leaves office later this month. And Republicans will face a wide-open primary for the Florida seat and potentially strong opposition from Democrats in 2010.
As governor from 1999 to 2007, Bush advocated taxpayer-financed vouchers for children in failing schools and passed a sweeping law that graded schools' performance. He said Tuesday that he still would advocate for his proposals from his policy foundation in Florida, giving special emphasis to education. He praised Obama's choice for Education secretary, Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan, calling him a "reformer at heart."
"I would hope that Republicans would support his initiatives if they don't go against the core principles of the party," Bush said.
Bush said the GOP should cooperate with the Obama administration in dealing with climate change and reforming the immigration system. And Bush -- a fluent Spanish speaker whose wife is Mexican American -- singled out for criticism those in his party who have used harsh language in their opposition to illegal immigrants.
"The adjectives and adverbs used, the raising of the voice and the anger . . . I think is very harmful politically for the Republican Party," he said. "There's got to be a better way of expressing our views without turning people off."
Many close to Bush were surprised a few weeks ago to learn that he was seriously considering the Senate race. They thought the slow-moving chamber would prove frustrating to the frenetic former governor, and that he would quickly grow unhappy as a junior member of the minority party.
Bush said Tuesday that he had concluded from discussions with several senators that he could have found a way to be productive and focus on policy issues.
He said he had not weighed the question of whether he could win the Senate election.
But running would have subjected Bush to scrutiny of his business dealings, such as his service as an advisor to the now-failed Lehman Bros. investment bank. And despite approval ratings above 60%, Bush would have become a national target and would have had to devote time during the campaign to defending the record of his unpopular brother.