A new group called Americans for Jeb Bush, headed by a Republican state legislator, proclaims itself dedicated to re-electing Florida's governor. But the governor calls it a scam and took extraordinary steps Thursday to put the group out of business.
In what may be a first in Florida politics, Bush will even seek to register three campaign slogans as trademarks, like Xerox, to stop unauthorized use of his name. The governor sent an e-mail to 20,000 supporters statewide urging them to avoid the group.
"We're going to do whatever we can to stop them," Bush said during a news conference. "This may sound ridiculous, but I'm going to trademark my name, so I can sue them. . . . It's just one of these scams that misrepresents my views and attacks my opponent, and it's not my campaign. I've disavowed it completely."
Bush took dead aim at a group whose fund-raising pitches speculate on Democrat Janet Reno's drinking habits and sexual orientation, and accuse her of going easy on drug dealers while she was state attorney in Miami-Dade in the 1970s and '80s. The letters were signed by the group's honorary chairman, state Rep. Gus Barreiro of Miami Beach.
Bush sent a strongly worded letter to Barreiro calling on him to repudiate the group. Barreiro refused but said he hopes to meet with Bush today.
"This organization was formed to deliver the strongest grass-roots organization ever seen in Dade County, and through our state," Barreiro said. "His name is not trademarked. Using his name in campaigns? I don't think you can stop that."
The group's existence and Bush's aggressive efforts to crush it underscore the high stakes in a governor's race that has drawn national attention because its central figures are the president's brother and the nation's first female attorney general.
Although he consistently leads every poll, including one taken two weeks ago for the St. Petersburg Times, Bush appears worried about a possible backlash against such tactics by moderate voters, who can be decisive in a competitive race.
Ben Ginsberg, a Washington lawyer and outside counsel to the campaign, said he would file trademark applications to protect three campaign slogans: "Bush-Brogan 2002," "Jeb Bush for Governor" and "Jeb!"
Ginsberg is no stranger to Florida politics: He helped shape George W. Bush's Florida legal strategy in the weeks after the 2000 presidential election, and advises Florida Republicans on redistricting .
Thursday's filing was done to stop the unauthorized use of Bush's name under federal trademark laws, known as the Lanham Act, Ginsberg said. The use of a trademarked name for commercial purposes is "outside of First Amendment protection," he said. A proper name cannot be registered, but a name's commercial use can be restricted, Ginsberg said.
"These are gutter tactics of misuse of a name, as well as personal innuendo against people who are running for office, essentially by people who are just trying to make money off the governor's name," Ginsberg said.
Barreiro said he is not being paid. "This is not about money," he said. But he said the first fund-raising letter, dated March 22, brought in $75,000 in less than three weeks.
The results are so promising, Barreiro said, he hopes to use the fund-raising base to help fellow Miami-Dade lawmaker, Republican Rep. Gaston Cantens, in his campaign to be House speaker.
Americans for Jeb Bush, based in Miami, is backed partly by Mark Goodrich, a conservative political activist and fund-raiser who worked on Rick Lazio's unsuccessful 2000 U.S. Senate campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The group's Web site resembles a campaign operation, with a logo of the U.S. flag, a portrait of the smiling Bush family, and a link to the official Bush-Brogan site.
The group's fundraising letter was upfront about its main message: "Stop Janet Reno and re-elect Jeb." Attached was a reprint of an article in Insight magazine, which is affiliated with the Washington Times and owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Also included: a photo of former President Bill Clinton and his dog with Reno's face superimposed on the dog's head.
Nothing in Florida law prevents such third-party groups from making expenditures on a candidate's behalf, as long as they register as political action committees and disclose contributions and expenses.
Bush's campaign sent a copy of the Barreiro letter to the Reno campaign.
"Janet Reno will not engage in personal attacks and she will not support organizations that engage in personal, spiteful attacks," said Nicole Harburger, a Reno campaign spokeswoman. "Will there be a healthy debate on the issues? Yes."