WASHINGTON—Ever since his brother was elected president, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has shunned the national stage.
He's avoided the national media. He's blended into the background at gatherings of fellow governors. He shut down speculation he'd seek the presidency. "I just don't like all that big dog, big foot national stuff," he said last summer when he happily skipped the spotlight of the Republican National Convention to tend to hurricane damage at home.
Now that might be changing. At his brother's request, he joined Secretary of State Colin Powell for a high-profile tour of tsunami damage in South Asia, putting the family name on the U.S. goodwill mission—and raising his own profile in the process.
A week before that, he wrote an article for The Washington Post boasting of his success at increasing minority enrollment in state colleges while ending affirmative action. "We are having notable success," he wrote in an uncharacteristic message to inside-the-Beltway readers.
He still insists that he won't seek the presidency in 2008 and thus try to extend the family dynasty. But his new moves beyond the job that the law requires him to vacate in 2007 after two terms have prompted speculation that he could be positioning to expand his influence while burnishing his political credentials, just in case he changes his mind.
Jeb Bush would be formidable if did seek a national role.
"Any governor from a megastate and with universal name recognition around the country is by definition a significant player," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist. "That's especially true if he could tap into his brother's national fund-raising network."
The Asia trip gives him exposure and experience on the world stage that other governors or even senators can only envy.
But Jeb Bush disclaims higher political ambitions, and many believe him.
"He's a very introverted, even shy man, with very thin skin," said Richard Scher, a political scientist at the University of Florida. "He doesn't like the limelight. He likes to work behind closed doors. ... This trip allows him to come out of his shell without having to deal with controversy."
Bush took unique credentials to Asia that underscore why the trip may have been something other than simply an effort to raise his profile.
First, he's already traveled extensively. He served as an emissary to Armenia for his father, then the president-elect, when that country had an earthquake in late 1988. He visited Indonesia as a businessman. He's led trade missions for his state to such countries as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Israel. He met his wife, Columba, in Mexico, and majored in Latin American studies in college.
Second, he has fresh experience with disaster relief after his state suffered through four hurricanes last year, though he downplayed the comparison between what happened in Asia and in Florida. "I don't think you can compare Arcadia to northern Sumatra," he said.
Finally, as the brother of the president, his presence in Asia served an important diplomatic goal. "The fact that I'm his brother ... symbolically gives people the sense that people care," he said.
Said Scher: "He's been to Asia. He's sensitive to other cultures. And there's probably no governor who knows more about disasters after the hurricanes."
When Hurricane Charley hit Florida last year, Bush didn't hesitate to stay home rather than travel to New York for the Republican convention. "Being on the `Today' show to talk about inside political stuff is not who I am, and that's kind of what you do when you're at these national conventions," he said.
Moreover, Bush doesn't need to get on television, at least not for political purposes. He already has a famous name and a solid record, and is the first Republican ever re-elected governor of Florida, one of the biggest, most diverse and politically pivotal states.
So maybe he really means it when he says he's ruled out a presidential run, at least in 2008. One key reason could be family stresses: His daughter, Noelle, has had drug problems and his wife reportedly doesn't want him to run.
His second term ends in January 2007. "Then," he told reporters last month, "I'll go back to Miami and I'll figure out what I'm going to do. But it isn't going to be running for president, I promise."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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