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Jeb trip to Asia seen by some as sign of Bush '08

It took only seconds for ushers to yank away the unauthorized "Jeb! '08" placards that popped up in Madison Square Garden during last summer's Republican National Convention.

The last thing the Bush-Cheney campaign needed at that point was buzz about a third President Bush waiting in the wings.

But speculation about Jeb Bush's presidential aspirations has never dimmed, much to his frustration. It reignited with a fury this week as Florida's governor joined Secretary of State Colin Powell on a tour of tsunami-devastated countries in south Asia.

Did it signal a new emphasis on foreign policy in preparation for 2008? Can Jeb Bush's repeated insistence that he won't run in '08 be believed? Is the president grooming his brother?

"If you doubt this, remember he brings Florida to the table, one of the two most important states in the Electoral College. And he's a very likable guy, so look for the Bush dynasty to continue," the Washington Times' Bill Sammons predicted on Fox News.

Time for a reality check.

Gov. Bush, scheduled to return to Florida today, has been positively Shermanesque in decreeing he won't run for president in 2008.

"No!" he declared last month when asked for the umpteenth time about running for the White House. "Why am I not believable on this subject? This is driving me nuts."

Nobody doubts he would be a top contender: He's a political superstar from a key battleground state, with a national fundraising network. But there are plenty of reasons for him not to run for president.

+ The former real estate broker and salesman's finances have taken a beating since moving to Tallahassee, with his reported net worth dropping from $2.35-million in 1997 to $1.46-million last year. His annual income fell from $712,000 in 1997 to $123,000 last year.

Friends expect him to return to the private sector after 2006 and keep his fingers in public policy issues. The governor says he has not made up his mind about his next career, except that it won't be running for president. Few people are better positioned to make big money than a former Gov. Bush.

+ Voters' tolerance for a brother succeeding a brother in the White House appears iffy at best. Strategists question whether voters would embrace a third president Bush _ at least immediately after eight years of the second one.

"If Jeb Bush's last name wasn't Bush, he would be among the top two or three Republicans running and some weeks would be the prohibitive favorite," said Grover Norquist, president of the influential Americans For Tax Reform. "His challenge is his last name and the fundamental republican objection of too many people with the same last name running for president in too short a period of time."

Even Barbara Bush dismissed the notion of a continuing Bush dynasty when asked if last year's Republican convention would be the last time a Bush were nominated for president: "Yes _ there are enough of us."

+ Jeb Bush has little patience for media scrutiny about controversial past business deals and about what makes him tick, coverage that would only intensify in a grueling presidential contest.

He has spent the last six years mostly fending off national media interview requests and has at times disparaged the beltway political culture.

Friends say his low-profile wife, Columba, would be unlikely to endorse a national campaign. The Bushes already have had to publicly endure the pain over their daughter's drug problems.

Despite all that, Internet message boards have popped up to promote Jeb Bush for president, and a number of Republican columnists have pushed the prospect recently.

Former Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman, the incoming Republican National Committee chairman, helped fuel the hopes of Jeb fans when he recently named the governor as one of eight Republican prospects for 2008.

Pollsters are throwing Bush into speculative 2008 matchups (one poll showed John Kerry and Hillary Clinton beating Jeb Bush; another found more Florida voters wanting Rudy Giuliani to run for president than wanted Gov. Bush).

Longtime allies believe his proclamations about 2008. But they are quick to note he has not closed the door on the rest of his life. At 51, Bush has plenty of time to think about the White House. He would be 59 in 2012 _ a year older than his brother's current age _ and 63 in 2016.

"Jeb has only said he won't run in 2008. He didn't say he would never run for president," said Zach Zachariah, a South Florida cardiologist, top fundraiser and longtime Bush family friend who has encouraged the governor to look at the White House.

Zachariah sees Jeb Bush as an instant top contender should he ever decide to run.

Likewise Charlie Black, another longtime family friend and Washington lobbyist, noted that a cycle or two away from politics could help minimize the potential concerns about a Bush dynasty and that Jeb Bush would never have to worry about losing name recognition.

Gov. Bush's future political prospects will depend on his own heart and how his brother fares by the end of eight years. But Black noted that four hurricanes gave many voters a stronger picture of Jeb Bush.

"Outside of Florida most of public only had a vague image of him as the governor of Florida and president's brother _ up until the hurricanes," Black said. "I think that constant daily exposure of him in a crisis management mode where he did very well probably left a very good impression with folks."

The perception of Jeb Bush as a brainy policy wonk lacking the personal charm of his brother was fleshed out in the hurricane aftermath. The reassuring compassion he showed in Florida also was apparent across the world this week to those who watched him stand in the shadow of Secretary of State Powell.

"I'm not going to say much," he said in Indonesia Wednesday. "Our hearts go out to the people, the families that have lost loved ones, to this beautiful area, to our friends from Indonesia. Our hearts are with you and we will be with you in the long haul. . . . It is with a heavy heart that we're here, but we're friends, forever. God bless."

For all the speculation about the political implications of the trip, the governor's presence likely had more to do with demonstrating the president's personal commitment to helping the tsunami victims than grooming Jeb Bush. Aside from the family connections to the president, the governor is now an authority on responding to natural disasters.

"The governor really doesn't need a trip to aid the tsunami victims to be the top contender for president in 2008. In my opinion, if he had decided to pursue the presidency, the day he makes that decision he would be the top contender," said former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas, a longtime friend who expects Bush's political career will end forever or for "quite a long time" in 2007.

"I know for a fact that the governor is committed to returning to Miami, return to private life and figure out what he wants to do then and there," Cardenas said.

There's still another bit of Jeb speculation among some top Republican strategists in Florida: Vice President Jeb Bush.

The next Republican nominee would itch to have the popular leader of America's biggest battleground state as a running mate, the thinking goes, and Jeb Bush would then be well positioned to move into the White House down the line.

Then again, Jeb Bush has never shown an inclination of playing second fiddle to anyone.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.

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