Road Show

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

The high spirits continue through the day's final event, a barbecue fundraiser at the waterfront home of Claudia and Richard Cowart. In less than 90 minutes, Bush walks out of the party with a tray full of ribs and checks totaling nearly $10,000 in contributions.

After fifteen hours, Bush is finally warming up to me, in part because I've assumed the role of motor-home jester. On the way to the hotel, I point out how strange it would be if we got into a fatal accident right now. Besides Jeb, Columba, and their son George, Edward Kennedy is with us (he's a photographer for the Palm Beach Post). "Imagine some confused editor getting a list of these names in the middle of the night over the news wire," I say. "He's trying to figure out what the former president, his son, and the senior senator from Massachusetts are doing in a motor home out in the Florida boonies." Imagine the headlines if the accident happened on deadline and the details were sketchy. Bush chuckles at the prospect. But at that very moment the motor home is cut off by a horn-blasting freak of a driver. We swerve dramatically to avoid hitting the car. For a moment everyone is quiet, then Bush begins laughing hysterically. Wheezing, his face turning red, he slaps me on the knee and we all begin to cackle.

After checking into the Punta Gorda Holiday Inn and a brief stint in the bar, I notice that the first event tomorrow, according to the press schedule, is a 7:30 a.m. breakfast in the hotel restaurant with extensive remarks expected by the candidate. I set my alarm for 8:15.

"There you are," Cory Tilley greets me as I stumble, bags in tow, up to the front desk of the Punta Gorda Holiday Inn shortly before 9:00 a.m. "Where were you? We had a huge crowd this morning for you press cynics. A huge crowd."

Soon the candidate comes strolling through the lobby followed by a serious-looking Diane D'Andrea, Charlotte County chairwoman of the Bush for Governor campaign. As we board the motor home, D'Andrea briefs Bush on how things are shaping up in the county. She notes that most of the doctors in the area have come out in support of Ander Crenshaw, the president of the state senate. "I told them, 'Okay, but you know Jeb is going to get the nomination,'" she recounts for Bush, who is scanning several morning papers from around the state. "I told them, that in September, after the primary, they could buy their way back in [to Bush's good graces with campaign contributions]. We'll punish them."

Bush looks up from his newspaper. "Not punish," he corrects her with a smile. "You mean include them in our winning team." D'Andrea grins and nods. Feeney then reads aloud a Tampa Tribune article in which Crenshaw once again launches an attack on gays. "Oh, great," Bush responds, uncomfortable at the prospect of fielding a new round of press questions about the subject. "Back to the big issue of the campaign." He then grabs the end of his tie, holds it straight up, lets his head drop to his right shoulder, and flops out his tongue, as if he'd just been hanged. In the last 24 hours, at two events, he has been confronted by gays, including one man suffering from AIDS. In each instance Bush handled their questions deftly but without sugarcoating his positions. He flatly tells them he is opposed to any expansion of civil rights laws that would explicitly prohibit discrimination against homosexuals.

On the agenda today is a series of walking tours. Bush will stroll the corridors of the Punta Gorda City Hall with Mayor Rufus Lazzell. He'll visit the Port Charlotte Cultural Center, where Columba will buy him a stuffed toy called a "damnit doll" that can be thrown, pounded, or maniacally twisted to relieve stress. He'll tour the Venice Police Department, where Chief Joseph Slapp will ask Bush quite earnestly, on three separate occasions during his 45-minute visit, to please consider him for the job of FBI director should Bush ever become President of the United States.

And he'll call on the folks at Kimal Lumber, where, because of a fluke of timing, he arrives at the mill just as the five o'clock whistle sounds and nearly all the employees head for the main gate while Bush is in the office meeting with Kimal's manager. Several staffers try to stop the workers from going home so Bush can meet them and shake their hands -- which, after all, was one of the reasons for the visit -- but the staffers quickly relent when they realize it's probably not a good idea to irritate people with such ready access to two-by-fours. Bush hangs around the mill for more than an hour anyway, saying he simply loves the smell of fresh-cut lumber.

Between tours Bush pays his respects to the area's various newspapers. At the Charlotte Sun Herald he is asked if he's concerned with the perceived importance to his campaign of the Christian conservative movement, and whether he might wind up being too indebted to their cause. "I don't sense it as this jihad that you're describing," Bush replies. "I don't know what it is they would ask me, but I'm probably in agreement already." When the meeting concludes, the publisher, Derek Dunn-Rankin, and the other members of the paper's editorial board adjourn for a private luncheon with Bush and Feeney at the Charlotte Harbor Yacht Club. Among today's three newspapers, the publishers, editors, and reporters he met were all men, all white.

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