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The task ahead

New governors find themselves being pulled in at least a thousand directions at once. In a state as large and diverse as Florida, governors face something closer to 15-million competing influences. So far, Jeb Bush seems to have done a good job of keeping his bearings since Election Day, but his job is just beginning.

The Florida that Bush inherits Tuesday when he is sworn in as governor presents special challenges and opportunities. Our babies are growing into childhood healthier than ever before, only to languish in failing schools. Joblessness is low, but the income gap is growing, worsening the prospect that millions will ever improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. The physical beauty of the environment that underpins Florida's economy is threatened by unchecked growth and greed. A growing number of Floridians are turning their backs on a political process that they see as impotent and corrupt.

Bush must use the singular powers of his office to give all Floridians a new unity of purpose. A large and growing state divided by class, race and opportunity cannot hope to thrive in the 21st century. By marshaling our state's vast human potential, Bush can show by example that people of strong will _ regardless of their birthplace, pedigree and political affiliation _ can agree on ways to pass along a better Florida to future generations.

Bush's immediate challenge is to set the tone for his administration. He won in November by reaching beyond the Republicans' traditional voting base and promoting an agenda that also was attractive to many African-Americans, women, independents and Democrats. Bush will be equally well-served by embracing the same strategy as governor.

Bush's early appointments have been promising. The new governor has cast a wide net and added a diverse and generally talented group of leaders to his administration. Choices such as Pinellas County Commissioner Steve Seibert to head the state Department of Community Affairs and Broward Circuit Judge Kathleen Kearney to become secretary of the Department of Children and Families show that Bush wants independent thinkers in critical positions of authority.

At the same time, Bush's selection of campaign manager Sally Bradshaw to be chief of staff shows an unwillingness to depart from the mistakes of recent Republican and Democratic governors. Blind loyalty is no substitute for expertise, and strategists who have been paid to beat opponents sometimes have a difficult time adjusting to the art of political compromise. Bush also appeased the far right of his party with his choices to lead the departments of health and corrections.

Bush has shown good instincts in the past two months. He has worked hard and kept a low profile when he could have been traveling the talk show circuit. And in the sad days following the death of Gov. Lawton Chiles, Bush was gracious and deferential.

However, the real test of his political instincts won't come until he begins dealing with a Legislature that is certain to try to pull the new governor _ and the state _ in the wrong direction much of the time.

Conservative Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature will propose new restrictions on abortion, AIDS education, growth management and rehabilitative training for criminal offenders. Will Bush have the backbone and sense of purpose needed to resist efforts to polarize problems instead of solving them? House Speaker John Thrasher will prod Bush toward the extreme, especially on environmental policy. The governor should be able to rely on sound advice from Senate President Toni Jennings, a consensus-builder and a moderate, and from his lieutenant governor, former Education Commissioner Frank Brogan.

Brogan will be instrumental if Bush is to succeed in converting his centrist image into actual policy on issues related to public education. Despite his support for a limited school-voucher plan, Brogan found common ground with classroom teachers on the need to toughen student testing and educational standards. He also succeeded in moving more decisionmaking authority away from Tallahassee and into the hands of local school administrators.

Bush already has set encouraging standards in some other respects. He has put in place strict ethics rules for his transition team, and he generally has complied _ albeit grudgingly _ with requests that he conduct transition business in public.

But the real measure of Bush's character will come when the developers, the oil barons, the gambling kingpins, the NRA and other special interests start lining up outside his door, asking for something more than a private minute with the governor. The decisions he makes, whether by decree or through his silence, will determine whether Florida's least experienced governor in this century can lead the state capably into the next. The millions who embraced Bush's promise that fresh ideas were enough are but a fraction of the 15-million Floridians who now constitute his constituency. The legacy he leaves _ to children, the poor, to those struggling to make a difference _ will resound long after the balloons fall and the bands die down, in the real Florida from Key West to Pensacola.

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