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    Bushes swarming Florida

    Family and political connections are converging as George W. Bush makes his final push for the presidency.

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    ELLENTON -- Kicking off a week of Bushes blanketing Florida, Barbara Bush urged hundreds of senior citizens to be wary of Democratic campaign tactics questioning George W. Bush's commitment to the elderly.

    "Please rest assured, as Jeb told you, George W. always has your best interests at heart," Mrs. Bush told the crowd at the Colony Cove retirement community in Manatee County. "You're going to hear some outrageous things about our son. Just keep this in mind: Do you think his senior citizen, white-haired mother would let George W. wreck Social Security?"

    At her side in Ellenton and at a similar rally in Fort Myers on Monday was one of her two favorite governors. Jeb Bush, after months of hearing Republicans question whether he was doing enough for his brother in Florida, this week becomes Florida's campaigner in chief.

    He will spend most of the week campaigning on his brother's behalf. He and Barbara Bush hit Palm Harbor in Pinellas County today, while former President George Bush rolls through the Panhandle and then hooks up with Jeb and Barbara tonight for a rally in Orlando. Jeb will be in Hernando County on Wednesday with vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and he is touting his brother's candidacy in radio ads and direct mail brochures. Even Jeb's son, George P. Bush, is appearing in a Spanish-language TV ad extolling his uncle.

    Most every move Jeb Bush makes lately is scrutinized for possible repercussions on his brother's presidential bid. Indeed, George W. Bush hasn't just benefited from his brother's occasional stump speeches. Various government offices also have lent a little help in polishing up the Bush name and helping other Republican candidates too.

    The governor's office for months has touted its progress in increasing minority participation in state contracting. But on Monday, two Democratic lawmakers jumped on a recent St. Petersburg Times report showing that some of the numbers are actually lower than announced.

    "Gov. Bush seems to be driven by the fear of harming his brother's campaign, rather than demonstrating a true interest in increasing diversity," said state Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville who, along with state Sen. Kendrick Meek of Miami, held a Tallahassee news conference to denounce Jeb Bush's efforts to overhaul affirmative action in Florida.

    State officials have delayed until after the election a meeting to hammer out final projections for Florida's Medicaid programs for low-income seniors and children. Preliminary numbers released in September indicated that the state would likely be at least $500,000 in the hole for its children's health insurance program. The final projections could determine whether programs need to be cut or other revenue raised. But a governor's office spokeswoman said officials still are fine-tuning the numbers so the projections won't be ready for about two weeks.

    Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, an advocacy group, said he has never seen the projections so delayed: "I am assuming there are reasons other than the election calendar, but I'm hoping that we find those numbers quickly so decisions can be made."

    The Republican effort to link the Bush name with helping seniors even reached Washington. The office of Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine called the Times unsolicited last week to offer a quote from DeWine praising Jeb Bush for his "tireless efforts" in helping pass the Older Americans Act.

    The state Department of Environmental Protection recently issued news releases about congressional environmental initiatives relating to Florida. The releases singled out just two Republican members of Congress -- Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale and U.S. Senate candidate Bill McCollum, both of whom are in two of Florida's most hotly contested congressional campaigns.

    Earlier this month, Jeb Bush held a news conference to remind Florida seniors about a new state law that could help seniors on Medicaid get discounts on prescription drugs. Last month, he and Republican Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher traveled the state to personally deliver bonuses for schools with improved test scores.

    "He has a vested interest in painting everything rosy right now to help his brother," said Tony Welch, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. "I think that's dominated everything he's done for the past few weeks, if not the past few months."

    Jeb Bush says he has been careful in striking a balance between his official duties and his campaign goals. In Ellenton on Monday, he dismissed the suggestion that an Al Gore victory in Florida would hurt his political standing.

    "People vote for the person running," he said, between handshakes and autographs for well-wishers. "George will get all the credit when he wins, which he will."

    - Times staff writers Alicia Caldwell and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

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