OVER deviled eggs and tuna, Phil Ardizzone listened as Jeb Bush (R), a candidate for governor and son of the former president, outlined his plans for the state at a retirement center here. Tall, earnest, beetle-browed, Mr. Bush pitched a tough package on crime, called for revamping the state welfare system, and suggested taking a more business-like approach to government.
``He really has got some good ideas,'' Mr. Ardizzone, an energy consultant, said after the talk in this central Florida community. ``I'm going to support him. But it is going to be a struggle.''
Those words may be prophetic. By jumping off to an early start -
expending a lot of money and shoe leather - Jeb Bush has emerged as an early force in the gubernatorial race of this all-important Sun Belt state.
But before the family name can be stamped on another high political office, he faces an unusually tough fight in his own party. After that, there is the sitting governor who, even though vulnerable, is a tough campaigner and faces no primary opposition.
``The guy is vulnerable,'' says Robert Joffee, director of the Mason-Dixon Florida Poll, of incumbent Lawton Chiles (D). ``On the other hand, the Republicans aren't exactly united by a particular ideology, as they tended to be during the Reagan years.''
The race here will be closely watched, not only because of the familiar name, but also because Republicans feel they are in a position to win the governorship for only the third time since Reconstruction. Florida is one of the crown jewels in the big-state matchups this fall.
As a result, the GOP has drawn an impressive array of would-be Chiles-slayers. Unlike his older brother George W. Bush (R), who is running for governor of Texas and only has to worry about incumbent Ann Richards (D), Jeb Bush faces at least a trio of experienced GOP pols: state Sen. Ander Crenshaw, Secretary of State Jim Smith, and Tallahassee lawyer Ken Connor. Uncertain, yet, whether he will run is state Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, who would likely be Mr. Bush's - and perhaps Mr. Chiles's - most formidable foe.
Therein lies the dilemma for the Republicans. Chiles will be raising money and honing a message, while Republicans will likely be sniping - something Democrats are noted for in Florida.
Complicating matters is the state's telescopic election schedule. The primary is Sept. 8, and if no one wins 50 percent of the vote - a distinct possibility this year - a runoff is held in October. That leaves just a few weeks to the general election.
``This is the greatest primary race in Republican history in terms of the experience of the people in there,'' says Will McKinley, a GOP consultant and lobbyist in Tallahassee. ``But, sooner or later, they are going to have to find some differences in why they are running.''
JEB BUSH has been hopscotching the state for months, part of the time in a rented RV - the ``Bushmobile.'' The quick start and more than $600,000 in campaign spending - far more than anyone else - have made the Miami businessman the GOP front-runner.
A Mason-Dixon survey of likely GOP voters last month gave him 34 percent of the vote, versus 27 percent for Mr. Gallagher and 10 percent for Mr. Smith. In a matchup with Chiles, Bush trailed the governor by only 4 percentage points, down from 15 a few months earlier.
``Jeb Bush has bought favorable name ID,'' says one GOP strategist. ``But his opponents haven't done anything yet.''
Being the son of President Bush helps - with visibility, fund-raising, and a campaign network. There are drawbacks, though: added press scrutiny and negative feelings people might harbor toward his father, who narrowly carried the state in 1992.
``More than any other Republican, Bush has more favorable name recognition but also more unfavorable,'' explains Mr. Joffee.
As Bush remarks on the pedigree: ``It adds a little celebrity status to the campaign - which can help or hurt.''
How much will become clearer next week when the former president plans a three-day visit.
On the stump, Jeb Bush dispenses a largely conservative tonic. To curb crime, he advocates adding 50,000 prison beds, ensuring that inmates serve fuller terms, making prisoners work, and changing the juvenile-justice system.
He would dismantle Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the state's chief welfare program, and put a two-year cap on benefits. Bush advocates school choice for public and private institutions. Critics, however, wonder how Bush will fund some of the programs.
What do the Democrats say? ``We would really, really like to run against Jeb Bush,'' says Lynda Russell, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.