Cookout, brush-off kick off Bush bash
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
MIAMI -- Gov. Jeb Bush kicked off a three-day celebration of his historic re-election victory with a hometown barbecue Sunday, but the topic some supporters wanted to talk about was a presidential run in 2008.
Even before taking the oath of office as the first Republican governor in modern times to win back-to-back terms, Bush is brushing off talk about a possible run for president.
He repeatedly shook his head "no" when asked if he wants to follow his brother and father into the White House, comparing the subject to claims by a religious sect that it cloned a human.
"It's just weird. I never think about it," said Bush, who has previously said he has no higher political aspirations. "It doesn't consume me. I've got . . ."
Then a supporter standing behind him, in a VIP area off limits to the press, hoisted a hand-lettered sign that read "Jeb Bush for Pres. 2008."
"You set him up!" Bush said to reporters and TV crews. "You set him up!"
Bush has frequently expressed contempt for the way Washington works, and his tendency to micromanage seems ill-suited for the job of leading the free world. But even loyal supporters don't believe him when he disavows any interest in the presidency.
"Hillary has no intentions of running, either, right?" asked Ellen Kirby, a retiree from Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
Bush's laser-like focus is trained on his second term, which begins Tuesday and will feature a new cast of supporting players, a short but ambitious agenda and a looming budget deficit of up to $3-billion that could force more cuts in education and human services.
The state faces spiraling costs for health insurance, for workers' compensation and for a mandate that the state pay a larger share of counties' court expenses. Bush and the state Legislature also must implement the amendment for smaller class sizes that voters put in the state Constitution.
Bush said Sunday that no tax increases would be needed in 2003 because the state has enough cash reserves. But he was noncommittal about the next three years, and Democrats intend to challenge Bush's handling of the state's finances by reminding voters that he approved big reductions in taxes in his first term.
"He runs up our debt and ignores our schools, children and seniors. All these things are coming up now for a reason," said state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, referring to the popularity of smaller classes and a budget crunch. "I don't know how you don't call that mismanagement."
Wary of complacency in his office, Bush has reshuffled the bureaucratic deck. Agency heads and key staffers are coming and going, and several key jobs are unfilled on the eve of his second inaugural.
In an e-mail to friends, Bush solicited new ideas.
"What suggestions do you have for a governor willing to take risks and try to make a difference?" he wrote. "My interest is in service to the citizens of Florida. I am asking your advice not to advance my political career, since I don't view my job that way. What reforms would you suggest I advance? What causes should I embrace?"
Working the crowd at Miami's Tropical Park on Sunday, Bush met Stephen Halpert, a University of Miami law professor and president of the local Federalist Society, which advocates strict separation of powers, a restrained judiciary and limited government.
"Send me some judges!" Bush told Halpert.
The cookout in Bush's hometown was the start of three days of events celebrating his decisive victory over Democrat Bill McBride.
The festivities are more modest than those following Bush's first victory in 1998, when supporters danced to KC and the Sunshine Band's Shake Your Booty and Bush led a parade through the state capital.
"It's a little bit more low-key," said Pat Roberts, president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters and a member of the inaugural finance committee.
The barbecue featured ear-splitting music, with burgers and hot dogs served up by blue-shirted members of the Dade Police Benevolent Association. The state PBA and its locals have been among Bush's biggest supporters.
Scantily clad Hooters girls dished up chicken wings, and elderly women strolled the park's grounds, incongruously wearing "I love Hooters" stickers.
Bush backers raised an estimated $1-million in private donations of up to $10,000 each to pay for expenses such as a 46,000-square-foot white tent for tonight's ball and 42 shuttle buses to transport guests to and from a parking lot in a mall 3 miles away.
The roster of donors, in the official inaugural program, runs the gamut from longtime Bush supporters to Florida corporate giants, to firms with a big stake in state government such as hospitals, parimutuels and phone companies. They include Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, Burger King, CSX Transportation, and International Speedway Corp., operators of the Daytona Beach raceway.
Tonight, thousands will pay $100 each to attend a "black tie and blue jeans ball" in a tent set up on the campus of Florida State University, the only event that's not free. Tuesday's events include a prayer breakfast at Florida A&M University, a noon swearing-in on the steps of the Old Capitol, an open house at the Governor's Mansion and a street carnival.
More than 4,000 people asked for tickets to the swearing-in. The master of ceremonies will be Bush's son, George P., a law school student and favorite on the campaign trail, especially among women.
Bush's parents will attend the swearing-in, but President Bush will not. Then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas did attend Jeb Bush's first inaugural, on Jan. 5, 1999, a bitterly cold day that found Florida's political elite bundled up in topcoats, scarves and gloves.
Bush acknowledged he's a little nervous about delivering an inaugural address. "Speeches in front of big, large crowds are always a little sensitive," Bush said. "There's some nervousness and angst, but I'm going to practice, which is something I don't normally do."
The audience will likely hear Bush emphasize three main policy themes of his second term: reading, diversifying the economy, and strengthening families. But he said people should not expect a lot of new details. "Inaugurals aren't a time for five-point plans," he said.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire