GOP site question tests Bush's loyalties
By STEVE BOUSQUET and BILL ADAIR
TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush wants the 2004 Republican convention in Tampa but says a bigger priority is getting his brother re-elected president.
The governor is in an awkward position on the convention question. While some expect him to use his White House connections on behalf of Florida, the governor said he hasn't done that.
"It doesn't work that way. It doesn't work that way," Bush said. "At the end of the day, they will do what is in the best interests of our great president, and I will as well. I'm a loyal soldier in his army as it relates to his political career."
The choice of a convention city could come as early as this week, and Bush called it a "neck-and-neck race."
Tampa's chief rival, New York, has been perceived in some circles as a better political option because it offers a made-for-TV story line, and the symbolism for a war against terrorism.
Bush said White House director of political affairs Ken Mehlman told him last week that a decision could come within 10 days, which means a decision could come this week.
The GOP's site selection committee is scheduled to discuss the cities in a conference call Thursday, but party spokesman Kevin Sheridan said a decision probably will not be made during that call.
"I do not expect a recommendation coming from the committee this week," Sheridan said. "However, we remain hopeful it will happen before Christmas."
Tampa, New York and New Orleans are the three finalists to host the 2004 convention, but New Orleans is considered a long shot.
The governor suggested that the symbolism of New York, the site of the terrorist attacks, may prove too powerful for Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, to ignore. The governor said Rove and Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee, are the key advisers on the convention site question.
Asked which city would most help his brother politically, Bush again uncharacteristically straddled the fence, making arguments in favor of both New York and Tampa.
"You can see both sides of that. I hate to sound political, but really," Bush said. "The symbolism of New York is a very powerful reminder of my brother's leadership, and Florida's a really important state, and will be in 2004. Nothing's changed in terms of the electoral dynamics of this state. . . . New York and California are difficult states for Republicans nationwide, and Florida's got to be part of the equation. You be the judge of which state's more important."
U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, said the decision will be heavily influenced by Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser. Rove is "going to ultimately say (Tampa) is good or not good. That's where the buck stops," Foley said.
The governor's clout helps Tampa's cause, Foley said, but the decision will ultimately be based on which city does the most for the president's re-election campaign.
"Even with Jeb's familial relationship, it's all going to come down to what it does to the president's re-election potential," Foley said. "Karl has proven his abilities and accomplishments. I don't think there's any of us that will second-guess him if Tampa is not the way to go."
Gov. Bush has appeared at times to be walking a fine line between boosting Tampa Bay while avoiding anything that would appear to be putting pressure on his brother to pick Florida. U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, said the governor was taking the right approach.
"I'm satisfied that he is supportive of Florida's effort while not putting his brother in an uncomfortable position," Putnam said of Jeb Bush.
The governor praised the work of Tampa Bay leaders, and he said Mehlman, the White House political director, told him a delegation of city leaders, led by Mayor Dick Greco, were adept at addressing financial commitments and other questions in a recent meeting.
"New York's got some advantages, but Tampa, based on my conversations, wins out on enthusiasm and community support," Bush said. "This is a big deal for the Tampa Bay area, and they've shown it, and that's important. You've got to be wanted in these things. Because without the kind of cooperation that comes from a community, it can cost a lot more than you anticipate."
-- Times staff writer David Karp contributed to this report.
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