Dousing Republican hopes that a political giant would enter the U.S. Senate race, Jeb Bush said Tuesday that he will not run.
"While I will always have more than fond memories of my years in public office and was humbled by the outpouring of support I received over the last few weeks, now is not my time to be running for office. To sum it up, in the words of Dr. Stephen Covey, I have decided to put 'First Things First,' " former Gov. Bush said in an e-mail to supporters.
The announcement opened the door for a free-for-all of candidates vying for the rare open Senate seat in 2010 to be vacated by incumbent Republican Mel Martinez. Attorney General Bill McCollum and former state House Speakers Allan Bense and Marco Rubio said they are again looking seriously at the Republican nomination and will make announcements soon.
Bush initially appeared enthusiastic about returning to public service to help lead his beleaguered party, after Martinez announced in early December that he would not run for a second term. He found strong encouragement from fundraisers and political leaders. After weeks of consideration, though, friends said Bush concluded that at this stage a grueling two-year-campaign and intense national scrutiny would be too much for his family and his new consulting business.
Through his foundation advocating education reform and his stature with the party, Bush is likely to continue to be a national voice for conservatism. At 55, his name is likely to remain in the mix of potential future presidential candidates, despite the unpopularity of his brother in the White House.
"I don't think this precludes him from entering public life sometime down the road. It just wasn't the right time,'' said Sally Bradshaw, Bush's longtime political adviser. "The outpouring of support for a potential candidacy is evidence of the level of enthusiasm. He just has to find the right time and place."
But forgoing this opportunity clearly limits Bush's national profile.
"Jeb's decision probably marks the end of the Bush era in Florida,'' said Brian Crowley, a veteran former political writer for the Palm Beach Post. "If Jeb stays on the sidelines in 2010, a future presidential race may be out of the question. By 2012, he will have been out of office for six years and he risks becoming — Jeb who?"
Gov. Charlie Crist said he was disappointed by Bush's news, "but I respect his decision." He declined to handicap the early crop of possible contenders and again flatly ruled out any interest in serving in the Senate.
He said he would play no part in trying to anoint a front-running candidate.
Bush was seen as the favorite to win the Senate seat, which now appears up for grabs.
"A lot of people will throw their hats in the ring, which will in turn cause a cascade of other people wanting (to run) for positions being vacated," said George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff and a Republican strategist.
On the Republican side, Attorney General McCollum, 64, appears to be the front-runner at this early stage because he has mounted three statewide campaigns — two for U.S. Senate and one for attorney general in 2006.
Matt Williams, who has worked on two of those campaigns, said McCollum would make a decision soon. "He's going to take a hard look at it and come to some decision in short order."
On the Democratic side, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink would be the clear favorite, and Bush's departure should make the race more inviting for her. Spokeswoman Tara Klimek said Sink, 60, is focused on the Legislature's budget deficit deliberations and has not made a decision.
"It's a huge game changer for the Republicans, not as much for us,'' Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami, another likely contender, said of Bush's decision, noting that Bush didn't scare off Democrats as much as Republicans.
In 2002, when the same Senate seat was open, seven Republicans sought the party's nomination. The field of hopefuls could be large again because the Legislature tweaked Florida's resign-to-run law. A politician in the midst of a four year term — say, a state senator — can run for U.S. Senate without resigning.
For a member of Congress — including potential Democratic Senate candidates Allen Boyd of Monticello, Ron Klein of Boca Raton and Kendrick Meek of Miami and Republicans Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers — running for Senate would require giving up congressional careers. Likewise, Sink would have to choose between re-election or running for another office in 2010.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.