- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

MIAMI — Nobody in Florida regards Jeb Bush as merely George W.'s little brother. Little he's not, to begin with. He stands 6 feet 4, and neither tree tall nor thistle thin, but with a boxer's muscular body that endowed him with attitude if not pugnacity. Unlike certain other men in his family, he speaks fluent English. (Fluent Spanish, too.)
A lot of people in the rest of the country think of Jeb as either helpless, a man caught in the crossfire of his family's presidential ambitions, or hapless, an ambitious younger brother doomed by primogeniture and the luck of bad timing to spend the rest of his life in Florida, which is actually more than an endless procession of strip malls, gated golf communities, sprawling churches of indeterminate denomination, and acres of knobby, hairy fat knees of various sexual persuasions.
A year ago you could see occasional bumper stickers on Florida roads proclaiming "Jeb! 2008," but not anymore, with or without the exclamation mark. (You can get, for a dollar at a truck stop off Interstate 95 north of Fort Pierce, a bumper sticker that proclaims "Florida, Home of Electile Dysfunction.")
Floridians are weary of the election jokes, of having replaced Arkansas as the butt of political humor (the Clinton era is described as "a period of sex between the Bushes"), but Jeb retains as much popularity as any incumbent governor approaching the end of a four-year term can expect to retain. He'll try to become the first Republican to win a second such term next year, and the luck of bad timing has turned into the luck of good timing. Or if not yet good, at least better.
Democrats talk bravely of taking him down, but there's no one who stands above the crowd of wannabes. The closest thing to a genuine maybe is Janet Reno, the villain of Waco and nemesis of Elian Gonzalez who kept the feds off the back of Al Gore. The latest polls, taken before it became clear that Jeb would run again, showed her trailing by nine points in a straight-up man-to-man matchup. Some Democrats and partisan pundits tried to cast this as bad news for Jeb, arguing that an incumbent ought to do better, overlooking the fact that Miss Reno, as the longest-standing attorney general ever, enjoys the advantages of incumbency as well as the perils of familiarity.
Conversations with dozens of Floridians of various persuasions, along a leisurely motor trip the length of a very long state, suggest that Jeb has survived fairly well the Democratic cannonading that began the morning after the election, when the governor became the designated target of the losers' ire in the wake of the chaotic voting and hysterical counting.
His troubles with blacks, among whom he campaigned aggressively three years ago and won 14 percent of their vote (nearly three times better than his brother did in Florida last fall), are well known. These troubles mostly grow out of his elimination of an affirmative action program (read racial quotas), which he replaced with a scholarship program that guarantees that the top 20 percent of all high-school graduates, regardless of race, will get a place in the state university system. This angered the race hucksters, though it is not clear how many of the blacks, targeted by the race hucksters, were actually angered.
Nor is it clear that the black vote is as volatile as the race hucksters have said it is in the wake of the Florida election fiasco. Revised estimates of the size of the black vote cast a considerably more sober assessment of the size of that vote.
A campaign to link Jeb with Katherine Harris, the secretary of state who was perhaps the most visible Republican official in the prolonged controversy over the Florida vote, backfired. Nobody believed it and some Democrats were among the scoffers. Rumors of a mere affair of the heart, even if true, couldn't cut much ice (or mascara) in an era when Bill Clinton and Gary Condit, Democrats both, have defined what sex and politics is really all about.
The business community, one of Jeb's base strengths, is generally pleased with the first term. One particular item is the enactment two years ago of a law that makes Florida one of the toughest states on deadbeat customers.
Someone, for example, who rents a car, a boat or a stump grinder and either keeps it or returns it damaged and refuses to pay for the damages can be charged with theft of service, not in small-claims court but in criminal court. A small thing, perhaps, unless you're a small-business owner — or an incumbent governor looking for good news.

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