Jeb Repackaged

No more of the angry speeches that dominated the 1994 campaign. His rhetoric is softer, fuzzier, less specific, as exemplified by this year's campaign theme: "We can do better." He talks generally about the things we have in common. He espouses the belief that we must nurture children rather than punish them. He promises to build consensus. And today, he asserts, his number-one priority is education.

"He learned a good deal in 1994," observes Sally Bradshaw, Bush's campaign manager then and now. "And just like you are four years older and I'm four years older, he's four years older and wiser." (Bush is now 45.) "He would also tell you he learned a valuable lesson from Governor Chiles four years ago, and that is you don't have to have an opinion on every subject under the sun. I think Jeb felt the need to be very specific on issues and to have an opinion on every subject. Now he approaches subjects very thoughtfully. He's taken the time to listen to the constituencies that are affected by the decisions the governor makes on an issue. Governor Chiles never talked about an issue in 1994 and yet won the election."

Bush agrees: "In '94 if someone would ask me a question, I'd think about it quickly and give a pretty provocative answer. Half the people would be incredibly pleased with it. The other half would say, 'Well now, something is wrong with this boy.' And Governor Chiles would be asked the same question and he would say, 'The he-coon came out before the light of day.' And that was it. I think in '94 I felt I had to prove I had answers. Now I've learned I don't have to have all the answers, and I don't."

In addition, three major differences mark today's political landscape. Most significantly, Bush is not facing a popular incumbent. Second, this year he had no opposition for the Republican nomination, a costly battle in 1994. And third, he can now draw on the remarkable success of his brother George W. Bush, governor of Texas.

In 1994 Jeb Bush faced a half-dozen Republican challengers, including Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Secretary of State Jim Smith. Both Gallagher and Smith had run successful statewide campaigns, enjoyed strong name recognition, and had represented the more moderate wing of the state's Republican Party. To beat them Bush needed to appeal to conservative voters, one of the reasons he chose as his running mate Tom Feeney, a darling of the right who opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. As Feeney recalls, "He had to be concerned with establishing himself as a credible candidate and a loyal conservative Republican."

Though Bush won the nomination, he had spent so much time demonstrating his conservative credentials that the scant six weeks between the primary and the general election left him little opportunity to moderate his positions in the campaign against Chiles. The governor took advantage by keeping Bush pinned down as an extremist out of touch with mainstream Florida.

Bush's newfound pragmatism was evident from the moment he announced his candidacy. He selected as his running mate Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, a moderate, pro-choice Republican. When questions regarding ethical lapses forced Mortham to pull out a few months later, Bush turned to Secretary of Education Frank Brogan, praising his commitment to children and his work in a bureaucracy that just four years earlier Bush had vowed to abolish.

The absence of Republican opposition this year has allowed Bush to spend time courting not only moderate Republicans but Democrats as well. As former running mate Tom Feeney recalls, "About a year and a half ago Jeb told me, 'Tom, I'm going to spend less time talking to people who have always been our friends. They are going to have to trust us. In this campaign I'm going behind the traditional enemy lines and make friends.'"

Credit that strategy to brother George, who spent most of his first term as governor reaching out to Texas Democrats and who is now coasting to re-election and is already being touted as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

"Here is a guy who not only wins the campaign against a popular incumbent," marvels Feeney, referring to George's win over Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, "but here's a guy who appeals to the Hispanic community, who appeals to Democrats, who is up in the polls. If you didn't look at that as a case study for running in Florida, you'd be nuts."

One area in which Jeb Bush's life journey remains incomplete is his inability to fully understand how his conduct in 1994 engendered such contempt from blacks that Chiles received more than 95 percent of the black vote. Recently, during a candidate forum in Little Haiti, Bush acknowledged that he "screwed up" four years ago when, replying to the question "What would Governor Bush do for blacks?" he answered, "Probably nothing."

From Bush's point of view, he committed a simple rhetorical mistake: He shouldn't have been glib. But the implication of the answer remains: No group is entitled to special treatment. If he had been asked, What are you going to do for white men, or what are you going to do for women, or what are you going to do for people more than six feet tall, his answer would have been the same: "Probably nothing." Bush's allegiance to that idea, however, will have an impact on issues ranging from affirmative action to minority set-aside programs. To this day, though, he maintains that the anger toward him in the black community was largely the result of his views having been maliciously distorted by the Democrats.

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