The less-familiar face of the political 'dynamic duo'
As Florida's governor, the younger Bush brother is creating his own
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — He pushed through major education reforms. He helped usher in a $1 billion tax cut. Some politicians believe his "softer" brand of conservatism could become a model for reviving the Repub-lican Party nationally.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush?
No, it's his brother, Jeb - the governor of Florida and forgotten member of the ruling Bush duo.
In his first 140 days in office, Jeb Bush is making a quick mark on America's fourth-largest state. True, some of this is because Republicans control both the state legislature and governor's mansion for the first time since Reconstruction.
But Mr. Bush has also reinvented himself politically since he first ran for office - and thus is now creating a persona on the national stage other than as the younger brother of George W.
"I think what he was trying to do [during the Florida legislative session] is put his stamp on the state and show, 'I am a player in my own right. I am not just George's little brother,' " says Richard Scher, a political scientist at the University of Florida.
But the big question is whether this Miami real estate developer with no prior experience in elected office has what it takes to survive once his gubernatorial honeymoon is over.
Politics in Tallahassee can fast degenerate into a quagmire every bit as unsavory and treacherous as the deepest muck of the nearby Apalachicola swamp.
Another Kennedy dynasty?
But if Jeb Bush is for real, the Bush brothers may be on the verge of creating a new American political dynasty, a kind of Republican version of the Kennedys.
Bush's early success is so widely recognized that he is even receiving grudging compliments from Democratic strongholds like Broward County - a suburban community in southeast Florida.
"He has been a very effective governor," says Ben Wermiel, a long-time Democratic activist in Broward. Perhaps even more alarming from a Democratic perspective is Mr. Wermiel's personal assessment: "I like Jeb Bush as a person. He is a likable guy."
This is not to suggest that Wermiel and other hard-core Democrats would commit party treason and actually vote for Bush. But it is an indication that the conservative Republican has been successful in portraying himself as something more than just a conservative Republican.
It is an effort that began shortly after Bush lost an earlier run for governor in 1994, falling a mere 64,000 votes shy of Lawton Chiles in the closest governor's race in Florida history.
Bush realized that a traditional conservative Republican had little appeal to much of the electorate. So he reinvented himself as a kinder, gentler Jeb. He became a man willing to listen to ordinary Floridians and learn from their experiences and plight.
And he did more than just talk and listen. Among other efforts, he established direct ties with the African-American community by helping to create a successful charter school in the depressed Liberty City section of Miami.
"Jeb Bush ran in 1994 as a conservative Republican and he lost," says Professor Scher. "This time he was a registered Republican, but basically he ran as a Democrat.... He learned - or at least his advisers understand - that a a partisan approach in Florida does not work."
Some political analysts say the Bush example offers a blueprint for the revitalization of the Republican Party across the nation.
Others are waiting to see what happens when Bush faces genuine opposition and an increasingly impatient constituency of conservative Christians who want clear-cut action on issues such as school prayer and abortion.
Bush dodged those issues this year with the help of sympathetic party leaders. But analysts say it will be increasingly difficult to keep such conservatives at bay.
John Dowless, executive director of Florida's Christian Coalition, says his group earned the right to set the legislative agenda. Conservatives are disappointed with the performance of some officials they've helped elect.
"Our people are frustrated with politicians who run conservatively in the election but then run to the middle once elected," says Mr. Dowless.
Where does Bush fall, he is asked. "That remains to be seen," is the response.
Religious conservatives aren't the only special interest to help Bush win office. And the tug of lobbyists will only grow stronger.
It will be a busy year in which Bush will be expected to deliver Florida for his brother's presidential campaign. And that could greatly complicate the intricate balancing act he already faces. It won't just mean getting out the vote. He will have to help raise millions of dollars in campaign funds.
"Among pitfalls he should avoid, the biggest one is whether he will become a puppet of the well-monied special interests or whether he is going to become an advocate and champion of the people," says Mark Ferrulo, director of Florida's Public Interest Research Group in Tallahassee. "That is the big question that is yet to be answered."
One indication of which way Bush may be leaning will come in the next few weeks when he decides whether to use his line-item veto to pare down the state's $48.9 billion budget. The target of his ax would be pet projects inserted into the budget by state legislators. Bush has vowed to cut any such projects that do not fulfill a statewide purpose.
Analysts say if Bush makes good on his threat it will help establish him as a principled leader and could propel him forward as a populist governor. But it is also likely to alienate some powerful legislators who could make Florida a difficult place next year - and not just for Jeb, but for that other Bush brother as well.