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Gov. Bush sounds like Candidate Bush

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush delivered the first speech of his re-election campaign Tuesday.

Officially, the popular governor says he won't decide until June whether to seek a second term in 2002. Officially, the speech was the governor's annual State of the State address on the opening day of the Florida Legislature.

But Bush acted and sounded like a confident candidate with no serious opposition yet.

One by one, he checked off his promises from his 1998 campaign and his inaugural address.

An overhaul of public education? Check.

The "10-20-life" law that provides longer prison sentences for criminals who carry guns? Check.

The Florida Forever program, an ambitious effort to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive lands? Check.

Tax cuts? Double check.

This was Bush at close to his best.

He was passionate when he talked about education, care for the elderly and growth management. He threw in a few lines and his favorite descriptive word -- "cool" -- that made him sound disarmingly unpretentious.

Most of all, the 36-minute speech was wrapped in a slick package of diversity and bipartisanship. There were videos featuring Hispanic children, a black education leader and white retirees. In what has to be a first for a State of the State address, there was even a video featuring a Democratic governor from another state promoting one of the Republican governor's initiatives.

Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes explained how his state had overhauled its public work-force rules and encouraged legislators to embrace Bush's controversial effort to change the career service system in Florida.

Bush clearly was aiming at a broader audience than the Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature and have the numbers to do pretty much whatever they want this session.

"The choice is simple for all of us: Would we rather be known for the enormity of the challenges we conquered or for the pettiness of partisan bickering?" Bush asked.

The tone and substance of the governor's speech was so good that Attorney General Bob Butterworth couldn't find much to criticize.

"A lot of that speech, you could really see Gov. Chiles," Butterworth said, referring to the late two-term Democrat.

That observation comes from the Democratic Party's de facto leader in Tallahassee, a man many Democrats wish would run against Bush but who won't.

Of course, State of the State speeches always gloss over potential problems.

Bush did not mention the effort by House Republicans to change the way Supreme Court justices are elected. He barely touched on deregulation of the electric industry, a hot topic in the wake of California's blackouts.

And he did not utter the words "One Florida" once. That is Bush's controversial effort to replace affirmative action in state contracting and university admissions that is overwhelmingly opposed by black voters.

Bush did make a pitch for his $313-million in tax cuts, including a cut in the "insidious" intangibles tax on stocks and bonds. His stubbornness on tax cuts will come back to haunt him if Democrats can drive home the point that the tax cut could contribute to cuts in spending on higher education and on social services.

This will be Bush's toughest legislative session. Money is tight, and there will be plenty of opportunities for missteps that could hurt his re-election.

Some conservative Republicans could push the envelope on issues ranging from the courts to growth management. Term limits have ushered in dozens of freshmen, and it's unclear how they will respond to complicated issues.

Then there is House Speaker Tom Feeney, a one-time Bush running mate who delivered a speech that was far more ideological, conservative and combative than the governor's.

The contrast between Feeney's speech and Bush's was striking. It may or may not signal trouble. But it sure illustrates why the governor remains popular as he cruises toward a re-election campaign he isn't ready to announce.

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