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Bush to speak on sons' turf: Florida

Some question President Bush's March 9 address to the Legislature in light of an upcoming primary that involves his son.

Five days before his son competes in Florida's Republican presidential primary, former President George Bush will address a rare joint session of the Florida Legislature.

The former president will address lawmakers on March 9, the state Republican Party confirmed Tuesday. With brother Jeb Bush occupying the governor's office, Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the favorite to get his party's nod in Florida's March 14 presidential primary.

But the Texas governor has faced tough opposition from Arizona Sen. John McCain, and every little bit helps.

"My sense is the race will be over by then, but who knows _ you can't take elections for granted," said state Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas. "I hope it helps his son, the Legislature, the governor of Florida and the party."

Cardenas stressed, however, that the purpose of former President Bush's visit is to "shed light on issues" as Florida lawmakers begin their annual two-month legislative session. Cardenas said the elder Bush might attend a few party fundraisers, but he also wants to visit his grandchildren.

But not everyone is buying that argument. The Florida Republican Party, which is helping to schedule the visit, has made little attempt to stay neutral in the contested primary: Cardenas campaigned for George W. Bush in New Hampshire last month.

Asked whether the former president's visit was timed to coincide with Florida's primary, former state Republican party chairman Tom Slade said, "Of course not," then laughed uproariously.

"It's good timing," Slade acknowledged. "George W. Bush running for president has become a family affair to be envied."

But it has state Comptroller Bob Milligan concerned. Milligan, a retired Marine Lieutenant General, is the Florida campaign chairman for McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war. He said the timing of the visit "causes me to raise my eyebrows," as does Cardenas' visit to New Hampshire.

"The party is supposed to stay out of it," Milligan said. "I think it's perfectly appropriate for President Bush to address the Legislature, but timing is kind of a critical issue. It's important to try to treat things with balance, particularly when the Legislature has representatives of both parties and the event is going to get significant press coverage."

While joint sessions of the state House and Senate are relatively rare, the use of such sessions as a forum for presidential candidates is not. In March of 1995, President Clinton addressed a joint session of the Legislature. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole spoke to the group a month later. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who at the time was pondering a campaign for president, spoke to lawmakers in 1998.

Next month's visit by former President Bush, however, will take place much closer to an election.

"What are the Republicans going to do in the interest of fairness?" asked Tony Welch, a spokesman for the state' Democratic party.

"I think this shows that the Bush people are more worried than some folks have been letting on."

Republicans dominate Florida's legislature, and many of them already have endorsed George W. Bush.

Not only does the former president's visit come five days before the state's primary, it also comes two days after Gov. Jeb Bush will deliver his annual State of the State address on the opening day of the two-month legislative session.

That same day _ March 7 _ protesters plan to march on the state Capitol to protest the Florida governor's plan to scrap racial and gender preferences in state hiring, contracting and college admissions.

Cardenas said the Bush trip has been planned for some time.