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On the Trail:  The GOP's Twilight Zone

Believe it or not, there's a swing state in this country where the name Bush is not a negative. In fact, in this magical place, Republicans clamor to be seen next to this Bush. Where is this bizarro world? Florida, of course.  By Chuck Todd of National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

WASHINGTON — You're traveling through another dimension; a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. It's a journey into a wondrous land where the surname Bush is glorious, and whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead -- your next stop, Florida.

Older readers will recognize the words above from the introduction to the hit TV show, "The Twilight Zone."

Believe it or not, there's a swing state in this country where the name Bush is not a negative. In fact, in this magical place, Republicans clamor to be seen next to this Bush. In primaries, candidates even argued over who is best able to carry on the Bush legacy.

In this place they call Florida, nearly as many Democrats approve of the way this Bush has handled his job as those who disapprove.

Of course, I speak of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- the most popular Republican in Florida now and, perhaps, in the state's history.

A few weeks ago, in the days leading up to the Florida primary, one could surf the local TV airwaves in any media market, from Miami to Pensacola, and see something that no other voter in the other 49 states was seeing: Republicans running toward a Bush. In TV ad after TV ad, whether it was a candidate for state senator or a candidate for governor, Republicans couldn't get enough of Jeb Bush. They couldn't be shown enough standing next to Bush or, if necessary, having him vouch for them in ads.

Despite having governed fairly conservatively for the past eight years in the country's most important swing state, Jeb has not seen his job approval suffer.

And what can Jeb do with all this goodwill he's acquired? Nothing. At least, not in 2008.

Jeb Bush is going to hate this column because he reportedly cringes at being portrayed positively juxtaposed with his older brother.

But it is remarkable that the Bush brand has not taken a beating in Florida the way it has around the country.

There are a number of reasons possible to explain this phenomenon. Most pro-Jeb folks would say it's because he's comfortable in his own skin. Said one consultant, "People respect him for being honest, direct and having a firm ideological compass." Another Jeb adviser explains it this way, "Voters understand that Jeb has passion for the state -- he cares about the direction of the state and he wants to improve Florida. And, even while many disagree with his specific positions on education, few doubt his commitment to the issue."

And then there was the work he did during the '04 hurricane season when the state was hit hard by four major storms. This alone may have brought him permanent goodwill in the state, particularly in South Florida where many of the more angry Democrats live. They still hate Dubya down in Boca (just ask GOP Rep. Clay Shaw), but they respect Jeb.

I can still recall marveling at Jeb's ability to slip back and forth from Spanish to English as he gave emergency instructions to residents. It was a moment like that where he connected with many Floridians and displayed a passion for Florida.

The cynical (i.e., the Democratic strategists stuck navigating around Jeb's popularity) believe he benefits simply from not being his brother.

From the Floridians I talk to (and I talk to a lot of them, as most of my extended family lives in the state), it's all of those things.

For my more liberal family members, it's that he's the un-George. For my more Republican kin, it's that he's what they wish Dubya would be. What's probably closest to the truth is that he somehow became Jeb and somehow disassociated himself from the Bush name. In many ways, he's more of a movement conservative than his brother. From issues like guns to education, Jeb regularly sides with conservatives in the domestic arena.

But there's also a Reaganesque grace Jeb has that his brother doesn't.

And yet with all of this going for him, this term-limited, two-term GOP governor of Florida isn't on the verge of assuming the mantle of '08 presidential front-runner. He's about to go into semi-political retirement, and it has nothing to do with how he's set himself up but everything to do with his last name.

A few months ago, the Diageo/Hotline poll [PDF] asked GOP primary voters which one potential candidate for president they could not support. The candidate that came in second: Jeb Bush. Among those Republicans who disapproved of George W. Bush's job as president, Jeb was tops on this question.

One wonders whether rank-and-file Republican activists would jump at the chance of supporting a successful, two-term conservative governor of Florida named Jeb Smith.

There's been a Bush on the Florida ballot every election cycle except one since 1990. That streak comes to an end this November. But as Jeb leaves office, he's leaving a state Republican Party that's fairly strong, despite the embarrassment that's Senate nominee Katherine Harris. In fact, he's strong enough politically that it appears he's spooked the national Democrats from pouring too much money into the state for this election cycle. And frankly, if the Democrats take a pass in '06, expect them to basically do so in '08, despite the fact that they'll put up a fight rhetorically.

As for Jeb, I'm not ready to count him out for '08. There's a vacuum developing in the party among mainstream conservatives who aren't crazy about Arizona Sen. John McCain or trusting of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Jeb doesn't have to get in early; he's someone who can wait until the fall of '07 and assess his chances then. Of course, Jeb's future is not just hurt by his brother but also by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

At some point the country is going to say: "Enough with the political royal family stuff!" Clinton, Bush, Clinton, Bush -- or worse, Bush vs. Clinton -- is probably too much of a soap opera even for this country.

But if Republicans never nominate Jeb for president, it's going to be a waste of talent. It's kind of like Bo Jackson's brief football career. If Jackson had only focused on one sport, he could have been the greatest that ever played. Instead, he's a trivia question for sports junkies. Of all the Bushes that have run for office, the only one that seems like a natural is Jeb, and he'll probably be the only Bush to not ever seek the presidency.

-- Chuck Todd is a contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is