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    Jeb Bush in back seat for this race

    The Florida governor has been careful not to upstage his brother in the campaign for president.

    TIMES
    POLITICAL
    EDITOR
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    NICKENS
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    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


    The real people had left George W. Bush's rally in Pittsburgh earlier this month when reporters wondered who would hit the Sunday talk shows and sell the candidate's newest pitch, "Real Plans for Real People."

    The Texas governor's communications director, Karen Hughes, suggested fellow Republican governors: John Engler of Michigan; Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin; Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.

    Jeb Bush of Florida?

    "He typically doesn't do a lot of national shows," Hughes answered, grasping for a diplomatic response, "and we respect his decision to limit his appearances on national TV -- if that's what he would like to do."

    That's precisely what the Florida governor would like.

    Less than seven weeks before the election, Jeb Bush still wrestles with supporting his older brother without creating controversy. His cautious approach doesn't include the high-profile Sunday talk shows.

    "I have a different relationship with Gov. Bush of Texas than Gov. Engler," the Florida governor said in a telephone interview this week. "I'm his brother, so I have to be a little more careful about how I help. Because of the comparisons, that might not help George in some cases."

    He recognized that did not come out the way he wanted.

    "Or if I mess up," Jeb Bush quickly added. "Heads you win, tails I lose."

    As the Bush brothers campaign together today in Tampa and Miami, speculation is rising among Florida Republicans, reporters on George W. Bush's campaign plane and talk show hosts about Jeb Bush's efforts to help his brother win the presidency.

    With Florida's 25 electoral votes up for grabs, it is no longer a safe bet that Jeb Bush can deliver his own state.

    "To think somebody was going to vote for somebody for president because they liked their brother the governor was an erroneous assumption on the part of many, many people," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said Thursday. "All of us have friends, and many of us don't like their brothers."

    Neither Republicans nor Democrats question how much Jeb Bush wants his older brother to win Florida or the overall election. He campaigned for him in New Hampshire and South Carolina before the primaries. He helped him raise more than five times as much money in Florida as Gore. And at least five staffers who worked on his own campaign or in his administration are working on the Texas governor's Florida team.

    George W. Bush laughed when he was asked about his brother's commitment to the campaign.

    "Well that's a loaded question," he said during an interview with several Florida newspapers earlier this month. "Are you suggesting that maybe brother is, uh . . . . Jeb is going to work hard at getting me elected. He's very popular, and he's willing to spend his capital."

    Yet the Florida governor's absence from the talk shows and his reluctance to grant interviews to national publications has lowered his national profile compared with Engler, Ridge and other Republican governors. A little-noticed trip to California has been his only recent campaign stop outside the state.

    Within Florida, Jeb Bush has skipped some of his brother's appearances. He missed George W. Bush's foreign policy speech in August in Miami and a West Palm Beach rally earlier this month. Today, Jeb Bush will miss his brother's rally in Sarasota and campaign forum at Sun City Center in Hillsborough County.

    Even George W. Bush's campaign headquarters in Austin does not steer reporters looking for a Florida perspective to his brother in Tallahassee. A news release this week suggested four Republican members of Congress instead.

    "I am a little surprised Jeb has not been more out front, or at least that's my perception of it," said Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater lawyer and George W. Bush supporter.

    Jeb Bush said such perceptions are wrong.

    The Florida governor saw his brother at a private fundraiser the night before the Miami speech, then flew to Pensacola to campaign for Florida candidates. He missed the West Palm Beach rally for a long-scheduled fundraiser in Jacksonville for education commissioner candidate Charlie Crist.

    Today, he will be speaking at a health care conference in Miami and a family care conference in Fort Lauderdale while his brother is in the bay area.

    "I am a second-year governor, and I take my job seriously," Jeb Bush said. "I want people to know that I am committed to Florida."

    Despite his efforts, the Bush brothers are linked at the hip.

    This week's Newsweek features a picture of the two governors with the headline: "Rescuing Big Brother." A long article on Jeb Bush in Talk magazine, filled with observations from virtually every Bush but him, rehashes how the Florida governor was long considered the Bush sibling best-suited for a run at the presidency.

    Every time the Bush brothers appear together, voters make their own comparisons.

    Mary Kowalchuk, an 80-something-year-old Republican, said she thought Jeb Bush performed better than his older brother after listening to them speak last week at the Top of the World retirement complex in Clearwater.

    "He has more confidence in himself when he supports something," she said of the Florida governor. "I think he's the stronger of the two."

    Those are the sorts of comparisons Jeb Bush would rather avoid.

    Tom Slade, former Florida Republican Party chairman, said he believes Jeb Bush's low-profile during much of the campaign was by design.

    "Everybody was anxious for George to do his own thing, and there was a level of sensitivity that they didn't want to overshadow him," Slade said. "He has now demonstrated his capacity and his judgment, so that his family can be helpful to him."

    The early assumption that Jeb Bush's popularity and presence in the Governor's Mansion would be an enormous edge is discounted now that the race is a toss-up in Florida. The Florida governor's job performance rating has dropped slightly but remains relatively high, at 55 percent in a non-partisan Florida Voter poll earlier this month.

    Yet the same poll shows Gore leading George W. Bush, 44 percent to 42 percent. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had 6 percent, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan had 2 percent and 6 percent were undecided.

    "This election is not a referendum on Jeb Bush's governorship," said Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state campaign chairman, adding that he believes the governor has balanced political and governing responsibilities well. "And I believe the people of this state are not linking it."

    Jim Kane, editor of the Florida Voter poll, said the poll results appear to indicate that some independents, conservative Democrats and other voters who aren't bound by party affiliation approve of Jeb Bush's performance but support Gore in the race for president.

    "They are going to decide who wins Florida," Kane said of those kinds of voters, "and I don't know if (the Texas governor) can do it without Jeb campaigning more."

    How George W. Bush's fate will affect Jeb Bush's political future is fuzzier. The Florida governor, who is expected to seek re-election in 2002 but hasn't committed, said he hasn't given it much thought. His pollster predicted the impact would be minimal.

    "Voters will be looking at what Jeb has done in the state rather than how his brother fared in the race for president," Neil Newhouse said.

    Poe, the state Democratic Party chairman, said if Gore is elected more Democrats will be interested in running against Jeb Bush for governor in two years. If Bush brothers occupy both the White House and the Governor's Mansion, he said, it will be much tougher to recruit candidates and raise money.

    "Up until this point, Jeb has been perceived as being nearly invincible," Poe said. "If he is perceived as no longer invincible. . . ."

    The focus now remains on the next 46 days.

    Today's Bush blitz in Florida illustrates the family's stepped-up efforts on all fronts for this election.

    The Bush brothers will campaign in Tampa and Miami. George W. Bush's wife, Laura, will attend another event and a fundraiser in Orlando. And the patriarch, former President George Bush, will speak at a fundraiser for Senate candidate Bill McCollum in Miami and at another state GOP fundraiser at a private home in Naples.

    Meanwhile, Jeb Bush is planning to make more time for campaigning for his brother and Florida candidates. He also may be prepared to raise his national profile.

    This week, the Florida governor agreed to an interview with an NBC correspondent covering his brother's presidential campaign. His brother's communications director asked him to do it.

    Spotlight on Florida

    Underscoring that Florida's 25 electoral votes are up for grabs, George W. Bush and Al Gore are returning to the bay area in the next several days. The lineup:

    Today

    REPUBLICAN GEORGE W. BUSH

    Rally at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, 11:30 a.m.

    Forum at Sun City Center, 1 p.m.

    Fundraiser at Hyatt Regency Westshore, Tampa, 6 p.m.

    Miami rally, Coconut Grove Convention Center, 9 p.m.

    Saturday

    Orlando rally, Time TBA

    Monday

    DEMOCRAT AL GORE

    Discussion on Medicare in St. Petersburg, possibly at the Coliseum ballroom. Time TBA

    Fundraiser featuring Jimmy Buffett, Coral Gables. Time TBA

    -- Some events are not open to the public.

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