Jeb Bush, who hasn't publicly picked a favorite in the Republican presidential race, privately is talking up the candidacy of Mitt Romney and steering some of his closest advisers to the campaign.
The former Florida governor has said repeatedly he won't be a candidate in 2008 despite encouragement from his father, the former president, and his brother, the current one. But Jeb Bush's support, even tacit, would be critical in the state that decided the 2000 presidential election.
"Governor Bush said, 'Before you commit, I want you to meet Mitt Romney. He is the kind of guy you will like no matter what,'" said former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. "The governor was very candid about the fact that he really liked this guy."
Jennings, the woman Bush chose as his lieutenant governor, is one of several former Bush confidantes in the Romney camp. Others include his hand-picked, former state party chairman Al Cardenas, and Sally Bradshaw, Bush's former campaign manager and chief of staff.
Now on Romney's payroll, these former Bush stalwarts are working to help the candidate overcome his lack of name identification in Florida. A recent statewide Quinnipiac poll of Republicans showed Romney in single digits compared to Sen. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, who has not announced his candidacy.
Florida GOP bright spot
Romney was in Florida on Friday for private meetings in Jacksonville and a town hall meeting in central Florida at The Villages, a retirement community that's a must-stop for politicians.
Last fall, Romney campaigned with Bush to help Florida candidates. As head of the Republican Governors Association, he also brought a $1 million check to the state Republican Party. While the GOP suffered major gubernatorial losses elsewhere, Florida was a bright spot as Republican Charlie Crist was elected.
Romney's lack of name recognition isn't daunting, argued Bradshaw, who talked with the Giuliani and McCain campaigns before Bush told her to meet Romney. She notes that neither Giuliani nor McCain can crack 30 percent even though nearly every Republican knows who they are.
"We are fully committed to putting the resources here so people can get an up-close look at Mitt Romney," Bradshaw said.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, who was picked by Bush to lead the party after the governor took office in 1999, said he never met Romney until he began setting up his presidential campaign.
"To me it was a fairly easy decision," said Cardenas, who also spoke with Bush before choosing to support Romney. "I found him to be a superior candidate in all respects, both as in style and substance."
Other former Bush aides on Romney's Florida team are Ann Herberger, who was Bush's campaign finance director; former House Speaker Allan Bense, who was a close Bush ally; U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, who was Bush's running mate in the 1994 election he lost; former Bush press secretary Kristy Campbell; and former state Republican Chairman Van Poole.
Many say they see similarities between Bush and Romney, who both were successful businessmen who hadn't served in a political office before being elected governor.
"They fill the space when you're in conversation or when you're in a room with them. Some of it is physical presence and some of it is personality," Jennings said.