Road Show

Want to know more about Jeb Bush? The machinations of Florida's Republican party? Vomiting? Get on the bus.

It's two o'clock in the morning and I'm kneeling on the tile floor in my bathroom at the Fort Myers Comfort Suites Inn, puking into a toilet that earlier in the day, according to the paper strip I'm now clinging to, had been sanitized for my protection. Food poisoning, most likely -- a bad decision made hours earlier after debating between Arby's and McDonald's -- and it has left me a wretching invalid. It couldn't have happened at a more inconvenient time, on the very morning I am to meet the man who would be governor: Jeb Bush.

Parked right outside my window, only a few feet away, is the motor home in which Bush and I will cruise the state during a six-day, fun-filled campaign tour. Unable to sleep, I lie in bed until about 6:15, when I straggle out to the parking lot. Cory Tilley, Bush's press secretary, meets me in front of the hotel and takes me over to see the man. "Hi," Bush smiles. "How are you?"

"I've been throwing up all night," I say while shaking his hand. "You didn't eat at Arby's last night, did you?" Bush shakes his head no. "Good thinking," I tell him. A slightly nervous Tilley later tells me that he hopes my vomiting isn't an omen for the rest of the trip. I make no promises, but as we depart for our first event A a breakfast roundtable with the Cape Coral Fraternal Order of Police -- I let everyone know I'll be passing on the runny eggs and greasy sausage.

Considered to be the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Jeb Bush is expected to come out of his party's September 8 primary in first place, with perhaps as much as 40 percent of the vote. That would place him in an October runoff against one of his three principal GOP challengers: Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, Secretary of State Jim Smith, or State Senate President Ander Crenshaw. If Bush were to win the runoff -- a prospect still very much in doubt -- he would then face a November showdown with Gov. Lawton Chiles, a politician who has never lost an election in his 35 years of public service.

Despite the fact that Bush has never run for elected office, many people are suggesting he has a chance to win. Of course, he does count among his assets one thing no other candidate can -- that powerhouse last name. It ensures instant voter recognition and provides an established campaign apparatus. His father won Florida in 1992, and the younger Bush has brought onboard as much of his dad's organizational network as he could muster.

The Bush name also means money. As of last month he had raised four million dollars, more than any other candidate in either party, with a sizable portion -- about fifteen percent -- coming from outside the state. As other Republican candidates are limping along with two or three paid staffers, Bush's juggernaut counts a staff of fifteen, spread among offices in Tallahassee, Orlando, and Miami.

In addition, the family name guarantees press attention. Earlier in the year, the Today show hit the campaign trail with Bush. The New York Times, Newsweek magazine, and USA Today have all published stories about Bush's run for office A a media onslaught his rivals could never hope to match. And though it might be easy to dismiss him as merely the son of a former president enjoying a free ride on his daddy's coattails, Bush has not taken the name for granted. He announced his candidacy extremely early, on January 1, 1993, and has been campaigning throughout the state six days a week, virtually every week, for more than a year. Usually he travels light -- a rented car with a staffer behind the wheel -- and hits a couple of events each day. But every so often Bush mounts a more ambitious outing, a motor home tour. This is the seventh, and by far the largest.

We are scheduled to appear at nearly 50 events in 28 towns over the next six days, and will log more than 1000 miles crisscrossing the state from Fort Myers to Okeechobee to Daytona Beach and then eventually down the east coast to Fort Lauderdale. The Bushcapade will include a lead car, a minivan, and the rather luxurious Coachmaster motor home for Bush, his wife Columba, son George, running mate Tom Feeney (a state representative from Orlando), and later Feeney's wife Ellen.

Off and on during the week, eight members of the press will join them on the motor home, though only I have signed on for all six days. Press secretary Cory Tilley initially was puzzled by my interest. "Are you sure you want to be there every day?" he had asked by phone from Tallahassee.

"Of course," I had assured him. "It sounds like fun." It also sounded like an unusual opportunity for an intimate look at Bush, at the emotions he plays to, and at the people who support him -- not to mention a week away from my office.

If Tilley was puzzled, Bush himself was cautious around me that first day, perhaps because of my digestive problems, but more than likely because I work for New Times. In 1991 the newspaper had published a highly unflattering story about Bush called "Dirty Money." I later learned that neither he nor his campaign manager had been consulted before Tilley invited me along. Bush's media consultant, Alex Castellanos, later told me: "Most campaigns wouldn't even let you follow the bus." Bush told other reporters on the trip that my presence was part of a grand experiment designed to test the limits of his campaign's open-press policy.

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