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Think 'Jeb,' then vote for me

GOP candidates are lining up to link themselves to the popular governor.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 29, 2006


TALLAHASSEE — He’s a fixture on political TV ads, Web sites and glossy mailers, but he’s not running for office.
Jeb Bush is far and away the most heavily-promoted politician on the campaign trail in Florida in 2006 as candidates scramble for a place in the shadow of the popular governor.

Bush isn’t asking for your vote, because he can’t seek re-election. But his consistently high approval ratings  make him the gold standard for Republican candidates eager to solidify their conservative credentials.

In the Republican primary race for governor, Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher have used the words “Jeb Bush’’ more than almost any other in the past year:

During an hour-long televised  debate from West Palm Beach Monday night, Gallagher spoke the words “Jeb Bush” 13 times, and Crist 10 times.

Crist, who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, said Bush’s name more than his own.

He called himself a “Jeb Bush Republican,” and he reminded viewers that Gallagher once “ran against  Jeb Bush.”

Gallagher promised to keep Florida on “the path that Jeb Bush has taken us.” He quoted Bush as saying that the class size amendment, which Crist supports, will “raise your taxes.”

Both men have spent millions of dollars on TV spots that make liberal use of Bush’s face and record to cement their own conservative credentials.

Gallagher’s latest campaign mailing uses a road sign to depict Florida at the crossroads of “Jeb Bush Blvd.” and “Liberal Lane,” with Gallagher on “the same conservative path” as Bush and Crist as the “liberal lawyer who has never owned his own home.”

Gallagher’s latest TV ad shows a Gallagher bumper sticker being placed on a car next to a red-and-white “Jeb!” sticker. The announcer says: “Sorry, Charlie. Only Jeb Bush conservatives get to be governor.”

Rep. Kim Berfield of Clearwater, a candidate for a Tampa Bay state Senate seat, has run a TV ad in which she calls herself “a Jeb Bush conservative.”

Her opponent, Rep. Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg, uses a picture of Bush smiling at him from a Capitol bill-signing ceremony.

A campaign mailing by Senate President Tom Lee, a candidate for chief financial officer, is nothing but Bush’s endorsement of the suburban Tampa home builder.  

Lee’s GOP primary opponent for CFO, Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, tried to neutralize Bush’s impact by showcasing a quote from a letter Bush sent Johnson two years ago.

“Your constituents and the state of Florida will be served well with your continued public service,” Bush wrote to Johnson. That Bush endorsement was for Johnson when he was planning a campaign for a state Senate seat in 2004.

All told, the mailings, TV commercials and web site exposure amount to a mountain of glowing publicity for a term-limited governor who will leave office in January.

“Its getting a little embarrassing,” Bush said Tuesday. “I think there ought to be a little more focus on what the future looks like, and how elected officials can shape that future. But I’m relatively sure that after Tuesday that will start to take shape, so I’m tolerating a lot of this.’’

For Republican candidates, tying one’s fortunes to Jeb Bush is about the safest move one can make.

A poll conducted earlier this month for the St. Petersburg Times said 56 percent of voters rated Bush’s performance as governor as excellent or good, compared to 34 percent for his brother, President George W. Bush.

From the looks of it, Bush has been endorsing fellow Republicans left and right. But it’s not so. The governor has taken sides in only four races and has endorsed only one incumbent, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

He also has endorsed Senate President Tom Lee for chief financial officer, Robert Fernandez, a newcomer seeking a state House seat in Miami, and Frank Bolanos, a Miami-Dade School Board member running for a  state Senate seat in Miami.

Bush has worked to help Bolanos unseat Sen. Alex Villalobos, a 14-year veteran of the Legislature who refused to support two Bush education goals: a watered-down class size reduction law and re-enactment of school vouchers.

Bush has recorded TV and radio ads in English and Spanish for Bolanos, and sent a fund-raising letter praising Bolanos as “a conservative who believes in lower taxes and smaller government” and “a true Republican we can trust,” a not-to-subtle blast at Villalobos.

Without mentioning Villalobos by name, Bush said the incumbent “has abandoned our party’s principles and lost his way.”

Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, a Villalobos ally, said she was enraged by Bush’s letter — and that Bolanos sent it to her legislative e-mail address. Argenziano called Bolanos a “lightweight, KoolAid-drinking toady” and said Bush is the one fronting for special interests.

“The governor has a history reflecting accommodation of special interests,” Argenziano wrote in response.
Argenziano said politicians are too eager to covet Bush’s blessing and too timid about disagreeing with him.

“All they want to demonstrate is that everybody should follow the leader,” Argenziano said in an interview. “I’m an old-fashioned Republican. I don’t believe in that. I think it’s bull----. I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit back.”

Bush declined to directly address Argenziano’s criticism.

“It’s a lively place, apparently,” he said of the campaign trail.

Bush has watched both of the Crist-Gallagher debates  , but he remains publicly neutral on the race.

Asked which one is the rightful heir to his mantle, Bush said: “We’ll find that out in September.”

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 29, 2006, 21:26:36]


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