The election for governor is more than a year away, but candidate Jeb Bush was in the Tampa Bay area Monday seeking votes.
"I'm starting early because I admit I don't have every answer," Bush told the GOP faithful at the downtown St. Petersburg Hilton and Tower.
He may not have the answers but he has the name, and about 100 Republicans paid $13 for beef chunks over noodles to hear former president George Bush's second son address traditional conservative themes.
Jeb Bush, a 40-year-old Miami real estate investor, said that as governor he would dismantle the state Department of Education, build more prisons and fill them with more prisoners and make people on welfare get a job or an education.
Eventually, three high-ranking Republicans are expected to challenge Bush for the nomination: Secretary of State Jim Smith, state Treasurer Tom Gallagher and Senate President Ander Crenshaw. Gov. Lawton Chiles has not said if he will seek a second term.
Would his last name help or hurt his chances, Bush was asked.
"Let's put it this way: I have to prove myself," he said. "My mom's and dad's impact among Republicans will be a benefit, but if I don't prove myself, people aren't going to vote for me because I'm George and Barbara's son."
Bush broke little new ground during the event, the annual fund-raiser of the St. Petersburg Women's Republican Club. But dressed in a gray business suit, he spoke with the confidence of a man who has sat at the table of political power all his life.
"He's a good young man and he comes from good stock," said U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. "His chances are quite good."
Although he was Florida's commerce secretary under Gov. Bob Martinez and ran Martinez's unsuccessful re-election campaign, Bush presented himself as a political outsider Monday. His theme was "structural change," a term he used several times during the day.
"What I would suggest to you is that you support candidates who believe in structural change, whether it's in our crime systems or our welfare systems," he said.
Among the changes he would make as governor: Reduce the Education Department to a shell and give control of public education to county school boards.
"Instead of mandating how to (run the schools), you hold the local school districts accountable," Bush said. He would measure success by dropout rates and test scores.
On another subject, Bush told a story about how his Miami house had been burglarized while his family was visiting the White House for Christmas. Crime must be addressed, he said, "because it will consume all the other problems that the state has."
He would start by building more prisons and fighting federal court rulings that keep prison populations down because of overcrowding. He noted that the federal bench is now filled with Reagan and Bush appointees who would lend a sympathetic ear.
"Gov. Chiles, if you don't begin the process of challenging the court orders that micromanage the operations of our jails, then maybe it's time for someone else to take over and have the courage to do that," Bush said.
He also attacked Chiles for enlarging the welfare rolls. "You and I know the welfare system creates a cycle of dependency and doesn't work," he said.
When he was a child, he said, he was rewarded for good behavior "by a hug, by a pat on the back, maybe I got an extra quarter for my allowance." Welfare recipients should be rewarded only if they are seeking work or continuing their education, Bush said.
Might the former president show up to deliver a pat on the back during a Jeb Bush campaign?
"Way down the road," Bush said. "First of all, he's got to live his new life. I don't want to get him back into the fray."