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If Jeb Bush is in, Senate race is on

TALLAHASSEE — He's tanned, rested and ready.

But two years out of the Governor's Mansion, can Jeb Bush, Florida's my-way-or-the-highway ex-CEO, really see himself in the "world's greatest deliberative body," plodding through slow-going compromises with 99 other U.S. senators?

"I am considering it,'' the two-term governor said of the Senate seat Mel Martinez will leave in 2010.

And with those four words, Bush has upended Florida's political landscape and generated a flood of national media attention on a race barely on the radar just two days ago.

Prospective candidates for the rare open Senate seat are effectively frozen in place, veteran Bush fundraisers are ecstatic about a potential new standard-bearer for a damaged GOP, and some longtime Bush watchers are scratching their heads.

"It was a shocker to me,'' said former state Republican chairman Tom Slade. "He has always been incredibly clear about his negative feelings about being in the United States Senate. But make no mistake, he is the 800-pound gorilla in Florida."

For all of Bush's derision of Washington politics over the years, longtime friends say he is seriously looking at running because of the times and the mess his party is in.

Bush, 55, sees a directionless Republican Party struggling for a consistent message and a set of core beliefs. No one has ever questioned Bush's core, conservative principles.

"I think it's a call to arms. I think he's been disappointed with the performance of the party nationally for the last year,'' said Al Cardenas, another former state party chairman and longtime friend of Bush's. "He is being encouraged by a lot of people at all levels. I know that he's going to give it serious thought for the next month, month and a half, maybe two months. And that's going to put everybody in a wait-and-see mode."

Indeed, a Bush candidacy would all but guarantee a free ride to the general election. No credible Republican would take him on. Two potential Senate candidates, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack of Fort Myers and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, declared their support for Bush Wednesday as the Republican nominee.

Bush's hard-charging partisanship and his politically radioactive last name may seem out of sync in a state just won by Barack Obama, whose current Republican governor is sustaining high approval ratings as he stresses bipartisanship.

"Let me give him some free advice," former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala said on CNN Wednesday. "Change your name. Run as John Ellis, not John Ellis Bush. The Bush brand is probably what croaked Mel Martinez."

In Florida, though, the Bush brand is different from the Jeb Bush brand.

"There isn't a person in Florida that doesn't know Jeb Bush and know that he is his own man, his own thinker, his own innovator. They think of him as Jeb, not as a member of the Bush family,'' said Al Hoffman, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman from Fort Myers. "I'd be the first to line up with his supporters."

Some friends think a Bush candidacy is more likely than not. Others speculate that he'll bow out after methodically looking at the pros and cons. He has told people this week he is weighing family and business considerations, including his consulting business, Jeb Bush & Associates, which his youngest son, "Jebbie," has joined.

He is looking, also, at whether the Senate would be the best venue to advocate for issues he cares about most, like education reform, and to help rebuild he future of his beleaguered party.

Slade, not a close Bush friend, said presidential considerations may be at play, too.

"The reality is he has always envisioned himself being president of the United States, and he needs a launching pad for that,'' he said.

After two years keeping a low profile, giving paid speeches and working on corporate boards and his consulting firm, Bush emerged in interviews after the election lamenting that too many Republicans in Washington have lost their way.

In a recent interview with NewsMax.com, he called on Republicans to create a "shadow government" to debate Democrats and the Obama administration on substantive policy issues. Fluent in Spanish and married to a Mexican-American, Bush also said the party needs to reach out more aggressively to nonwhite voters.

"We can't ignore large segments of our population and expect to win," Bush said. "We can't be the 'old white-guy' party. It's just not going to work. The demographics go against us in that regard."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

If Jeb Bush is in, Senate race is on 12/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:35pm]
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