Road Show

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

"But look into the future through your children's eyes and can we honestly say today that, with the system of government we have, our future will be brighter for our children than it was for us? I don't think so. We are the most violent state of all the 50 states, with a welfare system creating the wrong incentives for the wrong people that we've doubled the welfare roles in this state in the last five years. We've created in the last decade a permanent underclass. I don't think our children can have a brighter future with an education system so mired in politics, so mired in social engineering and bureaucracy, that all we get is a mediocre result. And I know as I look into the future through my children's eyes that it will be near impossible for our kids to have more opportunity unless we return to the fundamental basic values that keep a society intact. Values such as work. Values such as strong families."

As Bush answers questions from the luncheon crowd, I notice that Lehigh's Miss Patriotic -- a young woman who would seem to epitomize Bush's vision of the future and who also happened to get a more boisterous round of applause than the candidate when she walked into the luncheon -- is no longer in the room. I rush outside and see her, off in the distance, walking with her father. Breaking into a slow trot across the parking lot of the Admiral Lehigh Golf and Country Club, I sing out, "Yoo-whooooo, Miss Patriotic!" and begin to chuckle as I realize that this is the essence of Republican politics, the apple-pie, God-bless-America, live-free-or-die, country-club circuit I'm on for five more days, where candidates are likely to be upstaged by hometown favorites like Miss Patriotic, and as likely to brag about which professional golfers are supporting them as they are about which newspapers have endorsed them. ("You know, Greg Norman contributed to my campaign," Bush later beams.) Republicans!

Miss Patriotic is sixteen-year-old Emily Heller, and hearing my calls, she turns and waits for my approach. I have two main questions: How does one become Miss Patriotic? She says she won the Stars and Stripes pageant on the Fourth of July. "I wore something red, white, and blue," she explains. "And I spoke about the freedom and opportunity that every American enjoys." And what does she think of Jeb Bush? "I really like what he has to say about family values," she replies, though she withholds a formal endorsement. And with that her father pulls alongside in the family car and she hops in. "So long," she says, waving and smiling, not so much to me but to everyone and everything in her path.

If only Miss Patriotic could meet Venessa Boren and instill in her a little cheer. Bush and I met ten-year-old Venessa later that afternoon at a meeting of the Lee County Young Republicans. Only about a dozen people had shown up at the University of South Florida campus to hear Bush, who nonetheless gave them the complete speech, and followed with questions and answers. It was at this point that young Venessa, accompanied by her father, raised her hand. When Bush called on her, she began a long, thoughtful question about the growing problems caused by illegal immigrants, especially the staggering health care costs associated with them.

"We've been on the road doing this for about ten hours now," Bush responded, "and that was the best question of the day."

"And we've had five reporters riding with us all day, as well!" Tom Finney chimed in.

Venessa didn't even crack a smile. Bush answered the question as best he could, outlining a get-tough policy with regard to illegal immigrants, but also explaining that the state is required to provide medical attention to all indigent patients, whether or not they are citizens.

"I think there should be a limit to how much health care we should provide," Venessa told me after the meeting. Her classes at school include a growing number of immigrant children. "Government has to pay for them," she noted sternly.

Should she really be this concerned at such a young age? "People need to be involved in the issues that affect them," she said. "Besides, I like listening to politics. It sort of fascinates me." But don't expect Venessa to run for office someday. "I plan on being a marine biologist and living in Australia, somewhere very secluded," she added. Her precocious expatriate plans stem from her disillusionment with the United States. "I think America, while it may be the best country in some ways, it is also probably the worst country," she sighed as her father looked on, beaming with pride.

Our next stop is WBR-TV A dubbed "We Be Republican" television by the Bushcapade press corps. The station is unabashed in its zeal for the Grand Old Party. "This is right-wing biased television, absolutely," ad executive Gabe Ambrosio gleefully admits. "We're right up front about it." Bush receives great television coverage throughout his time on the Gulf Coast. In addition to the talk shows, nearly all the local news programs broadcast reports about his visit. "It's great here," Bush grins. "In Dade County, to get any coverage you've basically got to have a sheet over your face and be dead. "If you've got a sheet over your face and you're alive, then you might at least get on Channel 7."

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