First Brother: Is There a Second Act for Jeb Bush?

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Florida Governor Jeb Bush attends a prayer vigil on the steps of the Florida State Capitol building in Tallahassee on May 5, 2006.

Fans of Florida Governor Jeb Bush often like to whisper that he, not George W., was the brother who should have been President. Jeb, they insist, is the smart one, and the more genuine conservative. So they felt especially smug last month when President Bush, on the same day his poll numbers plunged to 31%, visited Florida to tout his Medicare prescription plan with the help of Jeb, whose own numbers have hovered in the mid-50s since he took office in 1999. Descending Air Force One, the President playfully straightened Jeb's necktie on the Tampa tarmac — and then spent much of the day fielding questions about whether he was grooming his younger brother to succeed him in 2008. Rather than dampen speculation, he only stoked it it by declaring that Jeb would make "a great President."

That endorsement was just part of what seems like a growing Jeb publicity machine before he leaves office next January. (Florida Governors are limited to two terms.) Official websites trumpeting his achievements, from school accountability to job creation, are as plentiful in the state capital of Tallahassee as Spanish moss. Tributes are pouring in from admirers like Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who writes this month that Jeb should be "the prohibitive frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination." And with tropical storms already pounding Florida, Jeb's face and his well-regarded command of hurricane management promise to be on prominent display from now through fall. To conservatives, gushes John Thrasher, a GOP lobbyist and former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, "Jeb is Elvis."

The problem is, Jeb is about to leave the building — and he insists he will not make a bid in 2008 to enter the White House. "Why doesn't everyone believe me on this?" he pleaded while trying to bat down the President's suggestions last month.

Two big factors make his denial more plausible than some would assume. Although Jeb, 53, will likely depart as one of America's most popular governors and one of the GOP's most potent figures, a bid to replace his brother in the White House could leave most voters with the impression that the Bushes are trying to be not just a political dynasty, but royalty. Better, the thinking goes, for Jeb to wait until 2012 or 2016. Another reason is personal: friends and aides say Jeb's family, especially his wife Columba and daughter Noelle, who is recovering from drug addiction, needs a break from the political circus.

But beneath the surface of Jeb's solid approval ratings lies another consideration. For all the acclaim he gets in conservative circles, there are still questions as to whether his record in Florida — which in reality has been a cycle of sunshine and tropical depressions, from pioneering accomplishments like Medicaid reform to embarrassing debacles like the Terri Schiavo spectacle — could survive the brutal scrutiny of a White House campaign.

In fact, Jeb's own party may be asking that very question. The Republican-led Florida legislature recently handed him a string of humiliating defeats, two of them involving education policy, which is expected to be one of the Governor's strongest legacies. Even the state Senate majority leader voted to kill Jeb's attempts to undo the school class-size limits that Floridians had earlier approved in a referendum — Jeb called them too expensive — as well as his efforts to revive his school vouchers program, which the state Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional last year. Some Florida GOP bosses cringed in March when Jeb, in his State of the State address with the Supreme Court justices in attendance, said the justices' voucher ruling "defies decency and common sense."

That fit of pique was another reminder that Jeb's notoriously thin skin is another large part of his legacy — and a potential problem in any presidential bid. Thom Rumberger, a GOP attorney and Jeb friend, calls him "the brightest Governor in this state's history. But to be President he'll need a little moderation and willingness to accept counsel once in a while instead of the my-way-or-the-highway approach he's prone to."

After the recent legislative setbacks, Bush asserted that he doesn't "mind losing when it's based on principles." Aides say he wants his governorship to be known more for what he calls the "B-HAGs" — big, hairy, audacious goals — and few Republican Governors have ever turned a state into the conservative policy laboratory and bellwether that Jeb has made Florida, hanging chads and all.

In marked contrast to his brother, Jeb is considered a workaholic policy wonk (although he's been known to relax his patrician demeanor with a glass of Wild Turkey and Motown CDs), and he practically oozes public service vigor, part of what Bush-watchers call the family's drive to cement its place as the GOP's answer to the Kennedy dynasty. "Whether they agree with his policies or not," says political consultant and former Jeb spokesman Cory Tilley, "taxpayers still admire him because they know they're getting their money's worth from him."

Aside from his education reforms — which have put more corrective pressure on failing schools, introduced merit bonus pay for teachers and sparked a steady rise in Florida students' reading and math scores — Jeb gets strong marks for his plan to move most of the state's Medicaid patients to private managed care, which has been controversial but is regarded as a potential national model. He has also earned praise for diversifying Florida's economy away from low-wage tourism and agriculture.

Still, Jeb's penchant for ideological overreach — especially regarding his obsession with shrinking government — has often backfired. While the state's threadbare child welfare agency is rife with neglect and malfeasance, critics complain that he has handed out millions of dollars in unorthodox tax breaks to companies that donate to private schools. Jeb, a morally conservative Roman Catholic, may eschew his brother's work habits, but he shares his Manichean world view — evidenced last year during his polarizing crusade to keep Terri Schiavo alive.

This past spring he hailed Florida's lowest crime rate in 30 years — no small feat given the peninsula's population explosion. But even as he spoke, the legislature was shutting down the state's "boot camps" for juvenile offenders, get-tough facilities Jeb had long supported, because a black teen had died in January after a beating by camp guards. Says Mitch Ceasar, head of Florida's Broward County Democratic Party, "This is still a very centrist state, and Jeb Bush is very often out of step with most Floridians and, I think, most Americans."

If Jeb does wait until the next decade to run for President, what will he do in the meantime? Friends say he'll most likely spend the hiatus back at home in Miami in the private sector, adding to the fortune he made there in real estate ventures in the 1980s and 90s. Recent reports said he'd been approached to replace outgoing National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue; but while that imperial sports throne might provide the kind of executive leverage Jeb enjoys, he says the job doesn't interest him.

But if only because he carries the heavyweight Bush name, no one seriously believes Jeb is about to disappear into private life. Some observers think he might get tapped as the 2008 GOP running mate — especially after presidential hopeful Senator John McCain paid him a friendly but unexpected visit last December. Regardless, most political pros fully expect him to exert sizeable influence over his party's agenda and candidates in the coming years. His most pressing order of business is to find a viable candidate to run in the September primary against Congresswoman Katherine Harris for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. Her floundering campaign has had little support from Bush, despite the role she played during the 2000 presidential vote recount, as Florida's secretary of state. Jeb may be taking a bow for now, but no one expects the conservatives' star performer to leave center stage for long.