Florida Gov. Jeb Bush swept into the Washington Hilton last night for a double-barreled fund-raising effort, a $500-per-person reception to stoke his personal re-election campaign coffers, and a $5,000-a-plate dinner for the Florida Republican Party.
The marquee draw, though, was the governor’s brother, President Bush, who made his first official fund-raising appearance since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“Jeb Bush is one of the great governors in Florida’s history, and he deserves a second term,” the president said during a 15-minute speech. He praised his younger brother as an environmentalist a strike at the governor’s detractors who say Florida’s wilderness has suffered in the past four years.
“I know that deeply ingrained in Jeb’s heart is to preserve the beauty of Florida,” the president said, adding that “He is a man who has done in office what he said he was going to do.”
The fund-raiser served as the start of what will be a hard-fought re-election campaign in Florida. Despite the president’s approval ratings in the high 80s in recent polls, the Jeb Bush campaign said the governor is not counting on his older brother’s coattails.
“We are running a campaign based on issues of importance to Floridians,” said Karen Unger, the governor’s campaign manager. “We can’t speculate on any impact that the president’s approval ratings might have on our race.”
The only Florida poll that has been conducted since September 11 an October survey by the state teachers union, put the governor ahead of Democratic favorite Janet Reno, 60 percent to 26 percent.
Since September 11, Jeb Bush “has benefited from his brother’s popularity,” Tampa political consultant Wayne Garcia said. “But we are also going to begin seeing more and more political rancor on the national level.”
When the Florida Legislature returns in two weeks, Mr. Garcia said, the governor will face some rancor of his own, despite the fact that Republicans control both chambers.
“The Dems have some issues they can leverage, including some environmental issues and water supply,” he said. “But overall, he’s in a strong position, and the race is his to lose.”
Randy Enwright, a veteran Florida Republican strategist, said that the governor can win the election on his own merits, “but the popularity of his brother is sure not going to hurt him.”
Last night’s event came a day after both the governor and the president announced education plans to their respective constituents.
In Florida, Gov. Bush announced a plan that would raise 2002-03 spending in public schools by 3 percent, or $147 per student.
The president signed his own bipartisan education-reform bill, which requires new student testing.
“That,” noted one political observer, “is not a coincidence.”
Jeb Bush’s campaign is doing its best to avoid repeating history. The Bush brothers recall their father’s political demise in 1992 after earning strong wartime popularity. George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton that year after forging 90 percent approval in polls following Desert Storm.
By campaigning for his brother, President Bush can boost his own standing in Florida. This year’s gubernatorial election is seen as a prelude to the 2004 contest in a crucial state that the president narrowly won after a bitter challenge in 2000.
Gov. Bush has canceled more than a dozen fund-raisers since mid-September, first due to the terror attacks, then because of the Legislature’s budget work, a campaign aide said.
A state Republican official estimated last night’s reception alone could net the governor “several hundred thousand dollars.” The governor has an estimated $1.3 million in his campaign war chest in a race that is expected to spend nearly $25 million, with much of that money coming from several national Republican groups.
For the 1998 state elections, the Florida Republican Party raised $28.8 million to the Democrats’ $13.4 million.