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    President always nearby to help out his brother

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 2, 2002

    The photo in many of America's newspapers Thursday looked innocuous enough: smiling George and Jeb Bush sitting side by side in the Oval Office.

    But the subtext should be clear to Florida Democrats hoping to recapture the governor's mansion: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

    It's hard enough trying to unseat a popular incumbent governor. This year, Democrats are up against not just Jeb Bush's high octane campaign machine, but also the full might of the White House.

    Family loyalties aside, Gov. Bush losing his re-election campaign could be a disaster for the president's plans to win Florida in 2004. The president's political team is not going to let that happen, and their determination reveals itself over and over.

    On Wednesday, it came in the form of a major announcement that the federal government would spend $235-million to buy out mineral rights to prevent oil drilling in the gulf and Everglades area. The same administration that has been adamant about the need for more domestic energy production decided to give special environmental consideration to Florida.

    The announcement was also a mighty victory for Gov. Bush and his ability to fend off Democratic attacks that the former developer is anti-environment.

    "This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that President Bush has swooped in to help his brother," sniffed the Janet Reno gubernatorial campaign. "And although the Bushes' announcement today is great news for Florida, we need a governor who will earnestly fight for our environment -- even during non-election years."

    Florida voters won't care if the move was politically motivated. They just want oil rigs kept away from Florida, and George and Jeb Bush are doing it.

    When key political battlegrounds are at stake, the president is happy on occasion to bend his conservative principles.

    He did it in imposing stiff tariffs on steel imports, thrilling rust belt states and outraging free-traders (as well as risking countertariffs against Florida citrus). He did it by signing a farm bill many Republicans opposed as way too expensive but that the farm belt loved. He did it with his latest announcement on drilling in and near Florida, just as last year he bent to Jeb Bush's entreaties and drastically reduced the area in the gulf available for oil and gas leases.

    Environmental protection is a crucial issue in Florida, and the White House knows it pays to be much more environmentally sensitive here than elsewhere. That's why, as the New York Times reported in April, the Bush administration was willing to kill a National Park Service plan to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park but embrace a ban on off-road-vehicles in Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve.

    It's hard to imagine what kind of dramatic announcement the White House might have next for Florida, but we're guaranteed plenty more attention from the president. Among the plums tossed at Florida in recent months: an announcement that hundreds of high-paying NASA jobs would move from California to Florida, and plans for a new 300-acre veterans cemetery in Boynton Beach.

    "It's really quite extraordinary the attention and the resources that the White House can pour into Florida in ways that benefit Jeb Bush," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.

    The Palm Beach Post revealed last year that the governor's chief of staff and White House political director hold weekly conference calls about policies, and no one questions whether the two administrations are working together even more closely during this campaign season.

    A few weeks ago, the president flew into Miami, thrilling the Republican base in South Florida with a speech denouncing Fidel Castro as a tyrant who would never improve his ties to America without embracing Democratic reform. He'll be back in Florida later this month, and Cabinet members are constantly shuttling down. The U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez joined Gov. Jeb Bush for a growth management bill signing ceremony Friday.

    The ties between the Bush brothers aren't always big winners for Gov. Bush, however.

    Many Democrats had feared the Bush campaign would use Janet Reno's counterterrorism record as attorney general as a potent campaign issue. After all, if Reno wins the Democratic gubernatorial nomination as expected, her victory would come on the eve of Sept. 11.

    But how much can Jeb Bush attack Reno's counterterrorism record when his brother's FBI director now acknowledges his agency might have thwarted the Sept. 11 terror attacks if it hadn't bungled its information-gathering?

    Then there was the awkward conflict about the definition of a tax increase. When national Republican leaders early this year scoffed at plans to defer the president's proposed tax cuts as amounting to a tax increase, Gov. Bush was caught in the middle. The governor had just agreed to delay a planned tax because of Florida's budget deficit, and Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot effectively declared Bush a tax-raiser on Meet the Press.

    Gov. Bush doesn't hesitate to stand up for his big brother.

    When Congress passed the president's economic stimulus package in March, the bipartisan National Governors Association warned that it could force states to cut education, health care and transportation spending. Jeb Bush fired off a letter to fellow association member John Rowland, Connecticut's Republican governor, complaining about the "un-Republican" message.

    "There is no reason why the National Governors Association should continue to serve as a paladin for Democrat causes," Bush wrote.

    Bush has stood firmly behind his brother's tax-cutting agenda at some risk. A big part of the economic stimulus package was a huge corporate tax cut that could potentially remove billions of dollars from state budgets. Amid tough budget years, most states are opting not to adopt the federal tax break.

    Not Jeb Bush and the Republican Legislature. They passed the $262-million corporate tax break for Florida, even as they skipped passing another popular round of tax-free back-to-school shopping days this year. Democrats are now pounding Bush for putting corporate interests ahead of schools and consumers.

    The governor, a proud tax relief conservative, is entirely unapologetic about embracing his brother's tax-cutting agenda during tough economic times. After all, the risks are surely overshadowed by the potential political payback.

    President Bush comes to Orlando later this month for his 10th visit to the nation's biggest battleground state. No telling what good cheer Air Force One might bring to Florida this time.

    -- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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