Still popular in Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday that he's interested in the seat Sen. Mel Martinez is giving up, and the field of possible candidates could quickly narrow to make way for the president's younger brother.
Bush, 55, won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for leading the state through eight hurricanes over a two-year period. He used standardized testing to overhaul the education system, was credited with making government more efficient and lowered taxes to make Florida more business-friendly.
While his older brother, soon-to-be former President George W. Bush is so unpopular and has been a liability to many Republicans candidates — and was one undoing for Martinez — Jeb Bush remains a popular figure here.
"I hope that Gov. Bush gets in the race. In my personal opinion, he understands public policy better than any other potential candidate looking at that race, by far," said former state House Speaker Allan Bense, who was contemplating his own bid. Bense said he would not run if Bush entered. "It would clear the Republican field, I'm sure."
Martinez, who served in President Bush's Cabinet and supported an immigration proposal unpopular with Republicans, has struggled to boost his approval ratings because of his close ties to the president. He said Tuesday he was not seeking a second term because he wanted to spend more time with his family.
The Cuban native who fled to America when he was 15 made his announcement early to give other Republicans time to mount their campaigns — and a list of potential candidates immediately exploded. Several Florida congressman indicated they were considering a bid, along with about a half dozen other former or current state officials.
The former Florida governor said Wednesday in an e-mail: "I am considering it," but didn't elaborate. A separate statement from spokeswoman Kristy Campbell sounded like the former governor was ready to get back into politics. "He will give it thoughtful consideration in the coming weeks and months," the statement said. "Governor Bush hopes to play a constructive role in the future of the party, advocating ideas and polices to get the conservative cause back on track."
Democrats said they planned to put up a strong candidate.
"Jeb Bush will not clear both fields," said Screven Watson, a former state Democratic Party executive director. "If a Bush is on the ticket ... a lot of money will be coming in against him."
But the former governor has remained popular in Florida even as his brother's approval ratings declined.
A Quinnipiac University poll taken December 2006 during Jeb Bush's final month in office found 57 percent of Florida voters thought Bush was a great or good governor. Only 10 percent said he was a bad governor. That poll also showed 59 percent of voters disapproved of the job President Bush was doing, compared with 38 percent who approved.
"Florida voters have always been able to distinguish between Jeb Bush and George Bush. It's that simple. They thought he was a good governor, they thought his brother was a lousy president," said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac's polling institute. "The things that made president Bush unpopular were not things that Gov. Bush had to deal with — the national economy and the war."
The former governor has spent much of his time since leaving office promoting education policy as the founder and president of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. As governor, he put a strong emphasis on standardized testing to keep teachers and schools accountable and passed a voucher program that allowed students in failing public schools to attend provide schools at taxpayer expense. That program was later ruled unconstitutional.
While President-elect Barack Obama won Florida, the state's politics are more purple than red or blue. In 2006, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist won by a large margin, as did Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, and Florida Republicans continued their control of the state Legislature after last month's election.