- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ponders a campaign for the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez, the decision comes down to how best to rehabilitate the Bush brand as well as the Republican Party, possibly laying the groundwork for a future presidential campaign.

He could follow the path of Ronald Reagan, who after his stint as California governor spent years drumming up support and establishing himself as a national conservative voice, eventually paving the way to the White House in 1980.

Or he could pursue the Senate seat and try to emerge as a Republican authority while juggling the day-to-day business of Capitol Hill - a less-proven approach that nevertheless worked for President-elect Barack Obama.

“It’s a desire to be part of leading the movement and the party out of the wilderness,” said a source familiar with Mr. Bush’s deliberations who pegs the odds at “60/40” in favor of running. “The only unclear part is, do you do that better in the Senate or out of the Senate?”

Mr. Bush, a two-term Republican governor who left office in January 2007 with a nearly 60-percent approval rating, has long been viewed as a potential candidate for the White House despite his brother’s dismal approval ratings. However, insiders said a Senate bid would be driven first by Mr. Bush’s desire to lead Republicans back from the electoral precipice.

“I think it’s one of those things where, if the opportunity presents itself, great, and if the opportunity doesn’t present itself, then that’s the way the ball rolls,” the person close to Mr. Bush said of his presidential aspirations.

While in office, Mr. Bush, 55, earned praise among conservatives for cutting taxes, trimming the state work force, pushing for school choice and moving to privatize many state services. Analysts credit his popularity among moderates to boosting test scores of minority students and leading the Sunshine State through two hurricanes.

He has kept a relatively low public profile since leaving office, punctuated by the occasional Op-Ed column or media interview and, most recently, the announcement in early December that he is mulling a 2010 Senate campaign.

“Once he leaked it, it was like wildfire burning through this state,” said Susan McManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. “It’s a race that would get not only national, but international attention.”

Washington lobbyist Al Cardenas, a friend of Mr. Bush’s and former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the former governor has been increasingly frustrated by his party’s lack of fiscal discipline, ethical gaps and poor messaging.

“We’ve had three poor election cycles in a row, and when you look back, it’s gotten progressively worse rather than having learned our lesson the first time,” he said. “The calling now is not about him; it’s hopefully to be part of a solution.”

Mr. Bush isn’t the only Florida Republican pondering a Senate bid. State Attorney General Bill McCollum, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Adam H. Putnam all have expressed interest, as has former state House Speaker Allan G. Bense. However, state Republicans expect them to bow out if Mr. Bush enters.

“I don’t think there’s any Republican in the state that could beat him in the Republican primary,” said Justin Sayfie, a former top adviser to Mr. Bush.

Despite his overwhelming popularity among conservatives, however, Mr. Bush could face several challenges, not the least of which is his last name. President Bush will depart in January with two ongoing wars, a recession and a slew of unprecedented government bailouts.

“To quote Jeb’s big brother, George W.: ‘Bring it on,’” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.

Ms. McManus said it’s probably too early to tell how much President Bush’s unpopularity could impact the former governor’s campaign.

“Will the Bush name [in two years] be improved, or will it be even further tarnished? We don’t know,” she said, “but the good news for Jeb is he’s being judged by Floridians and not the rest of the country.”

The demographics of the state’s electorate have changed since Mr. Bush left office, she added. In the most recent election cycle, President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign registered hundreds of thousands of new voters.

“Florida has changed quite a bit since then,” said Mr. Jotkoff, noting that Florida leads the nation in job losses and has the second-highest foreclosure rate. “Should ‘King Jeb’ enter the race for U.S. Senate, the Florida Democratic Party will very aggressively remind the Floridians of what Jeb’s failed polices have done to our state.”

On the Democratic side, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, one of Florida’s two Democrats statewide - the other being Sen. Bill Nelson - has publicly expressed an interest in running, as have Reps. Allen Boyd and Kendrick B. Meek.

Unlike last month’s race, the 2010 Senate contest will top the ballot, and Democrats won’t be able to ride the coattails of Mr. Obama, who will have been in office for almost two years by then. Nevertheless, some say Mr. Obama’s performance in the next two years could play a role.

“We have a lot of unknown factors,” Florida lobbyist Ron Book said. “Some of them will be answered by Obama.”