Longform

Road Show

Page 4 of 13

"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."

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.

TUESDAY
"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."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede