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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Jeb Bush is best choice for Republican nomination

It's time to stop treating the election of the next president of the United States like a game show without serious consequences. After more than a year of constant fundraising, meaningless opinion polls and reckless rhetoric from so many candidates, voters finally will make their voices heard starting Monday in the Iowa caucuses and eight days later in the New Hampshire primary. For Republicans fighting for both the soul of their party and the White House, the best choice is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Florida primary is not until March 15, and voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will weed out the field. To the voters in those other states and to Florida Republicans as well, we offer this advice: We know Bush's strengths and weaknesses, and we are confident he is the most thoughtful, principled and energetic candidate in the Republican field.

Bush was one of the most effective governors in Florida's history and the first Republican to serve two terms. From 1999 to 2007, he reshaped the state with a steady stream of big ideas and unbending determination. He was a hands-on chief executive who overhauled public education by introducing standardized testing, a school grading system and the nation's first statewide voucher system that now relies on business tax credits to help pay private school tuition for low-income students. He cut taxes by $19 billion, eliminated thousands of state jobs and consolidated the governor's authority over higher education and the selection of judges. He ended affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting, and he initiated the transformation of the state's Medicaid program into a privately run managed care system. His credentials as a fiscal and social conservative are in fine order, and anyone who suggests otherwise distorts his record.

Let there be no mistake. The Tampa Bay Times editorial board had serious policy disagreements with Bush on many of his priorities. We opposed tuition vouchers and unwarranted tax cuts. We vigorously protested his unprecedented efforts to force a feeding tube to be reinserted into severely brain-damaged Terri Schiavo, which the courts overturned.

Those disagreements do not diminish our respect for Bush's intellectual rigor, leadership skills and genuine commitment to helping those less fortunate. He co-founded a charter school in one of Miami-Dade County's poorest communities, and after leaving the Governor's Mansion he remained engaged in education policy through his nonprofit foundation. He speaks compassionately about fighting drug abuse, drawing on his experiences with his daughter. His interest in making government work to create opportunities for everyone regardless of race or economic status is sincere.

Bush can capably steer a large government bureaucracy, and he has proven his leadership skills in times of crisis. He guided Florida through eight hurricanes, including four in six weeks in 2004, that scarred communities, left billions in damage and decimated the property insurance market. The importance of a steady hand and administrative competence when the public needs both help and reassurance should not be underestimated.

The race for the Republican nomination has not unfolded as Bush or virtually anyone else anticipated. Donald Trump has tapped into anger among many Republicans about the economy, fears of terrorism and deep dissatisfaction with the nation's direction under President Barack Obama. This year turns out to be bad timing for an establishment candidate with a family legacy when disillusioned voters thirst for change in Washington. But Bush demonstrated in Florida he will challenge stale conventions and push new approaches. He offers more than sound bites in his specific campaign proposals for changing the federal tax structure, pursuing immigration reforms and managing foreign policy. Experience, competence and thoughtfulness should not be considered liabilities for candidates for president.

In contrast, Trump has preyed upon Americans' fears about financial and personal security without offering plausible solutions. His proposals to force Mexico to pay for a wall along our southern border and temporarily ban all Muslims from entering this country are farcical answers to serious challenges regarding immigration and terrorism. He has offended Hispanics, women, the disabled and former prisoners of war with his insults and bombast, and he has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be an effective president.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is a dangerous alternative with his willingness to "carpet bomb'' Islamic militants and recklessly endanger civilian lives. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has diminished the presidency with his crude insults of Obama in shockingly personal terms. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has experience and sensible views, but he may not have the money or organization for the long haul.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the most polished orator in the Republican field, and he has a compelling personal story. But there is nothing in his record to indicate he is prepared to be president. He was an undistinguished state legislator who rose to Florida House speaker on his charm and surfed the 2010 tea party wave into the U.S. Senate. He quickly grew uninterested in that office, and when the political winds shifted he abandoned his biggest legislative priority, comprehensive immigration reform. Rubio is a likable opportunist with a persuasive sales pitch but a thin record of accomplishment.

Bush badly miscalculated that he could become the presumptive Republican nominee by raising so much money last year, and his campaign skills were rusty. But Trump's snide attacks about Bush's lack of energy were never accurate. It has been Bush who has best challenged Trump for his ridiculous talk of banning Muslims from entering this country and for suggesting a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods that would ignite a trade war.

This is a pivotal moment for the Republican Party, which has to broaden its message and its appeal to women and minorities to ensure its long-term future. Bush has the best potential to connect with the voters in a general election and take the nation forward rather than backward. For the Republican nomination for president, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jeb Bush.