Road Show

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"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.

As we pull up to the Fraternal Order of Police hall in Cape Coral, the motor home stops in a no-parking zone and Bush jumps out. Like any savvy politician running against an incumbent these days, he understands that his support grows in proportion to the public's sense of fear and insecurity. And so it isn't surprising that on this first day, and throughout the week, the strident rhetoric of a law-and-order candidate takes center stage. "The first priority of government is public safety," Bush tells the officers gathered for the morning meeting. As a society, he asserts, we should be guided by a simple principle: "When you do something wrong, bad things should happen to you. We have to build a prison system big enough to put the bad people away long enough for our fear to subside. And then when prisoners go to prison, we'd better make sure that it's not soft time, and it isn't something more comfortable than the folks who live outside the prison who are working hard and playing by the rules. It should be hard time. We should require work. Prisoners ought to be building the prisons, they ought to be growing the crops, they ought to be cleaning up the highways."

That tough talk extends to the juvenile justice system as well. "We don't punish young people," Bush declares. "That should be at the core of our juvenile justice system. We should have punishment being the overriding philosophy in how we deal with children. That means more boot camps and fewer basket-weaving classes."

Retribution. Revenge. Bush appeals to a crude sort of siege mentality that is emerging in Florida today, born of a belief that our laws and the criminal justice system are incapable of protecting anyone. Bush tells the officers -- as he will all the groups he meets with on the Gulf Coast -- the story of the Miami funeral home employee who was recently beaten by a mob, robbed, and then shot to death. His voice is solemn, and the officers shake their heads in disgust. When Tom Feeney rises to speak, he, too, invokes the funeral home employee, but what Bush had done implicitly, Feeney takes a step further, laying the blame squarely at one man's feet. "That's the kind of society we live in," he tells the officers, "after four years of Lawton Chiles."

A call-in radio show is next, then a call-in television program and tours of a boot camp and a drug treatment facility for juveniles. After that it's time for lunch with the Lehigh Acres Community Council, where about 200 people have paid ten dollars apiece to hear Bush speak.

"Are you ready, baby?" Bush hollers to Columba in the back of the motor home as they arrive. It's a little ritual repeated at almost every stop on the trip. Bush has a way of saying baby that evokes the image of an old-time gangster calling to his favorite moll. They are undeniably cute together; she's about five feet, two inches tall, he is six feet four. Bush never fails to elicit from his audiences an affectionate "ooohhh" when he tells the story of how they met, more than twenty years ago while he was part of a high school exchange program in Mexico. "If I could have done a somersault, I would have," he grins.

At the luncheon several women tell Bush how much they admire his father and wish he was still president. The compliments point up an irony in Bush's race for governor, and in all the talk about Bush capitalizing on his father's name: In order to win in Florida Bush must mount the type of political campaign that defeated his father. He is striving to combine the best elements of both Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, but wrapped inside a highly conservative agenda.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede