The candidate wanted to talk about getting tough on crime and cutting government spending, but his audience wanted to know about Christmas at Camp David and whether it was mom or dad who really wore the pants in the family.
Jeb Bush answered patiently, politely, and then added: “I am running for governor not because I am George and Barbara Bush’s son. I am running because I am George P. and Noelle and Jeb’s father.”
It is not easy for the child of a President to carve out a political identity of his own, a lesson that two sons of George Bush are learning first hand as they run for governor: Jeb Bush in Florida and George W. Bush in Texas.
“I am not running for governor because I am George Bush’s son,” George W. told folks in Texas. “I am running because I am Jenna and Barbara’s father.”
A year after George Bush lost the presidency, the eldest two of his four sons are venturing into politics in a pair of 1994’s biggest contests. In doing so, they hope to add to the family’s political legacy. Their father served in the House before becoming vice president and then President. Their late grandfather, Prescott Bush, served in the Senate from 1952 to 1963.
History suggests the Bush brothers have their work cut out for them if they harbor aspirations to the White House. John Quincy Adams was the first--and last--son of a President elected to the highest office.
For now, their focus is on the statehouses in Tallahassee and Austin. And they share more than a physical resemblance to their famous father and their practiced answer to questions about following him into politics.
Both are running on conservative platforms criticizing incumbent Democrats of taxing too much, spending too much, turning a blind eye to violent crime and allowing public education to decay.
And both face uphill battles.
In Texas, George W. Bush, 46, appears to have a clear path to the Republican gubernatorial nomination but would then face Gov. Ann Richards, a popular, sharp-tongued Democrat.
In Florida, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles hasn’t said if he will seek reelection and is considered vulnerable if he does.
Jeb Bush, 40, doesn’t have the luxury of no opposition enjoyed by his big brother; a handful of Florida Republicans are seeking the nomination, which is why the campaign has started so soon.
If elected, he promises to abolish the state Education Department so local governments can control school policy, build more prison cells and adopt strict sentencing guidelines for a juvenile justice system he says “coddles these kids now.”
He opposes legalized abortion and supports term limits and a ballot measure that would deny homosexuals specific protections under state civil rights laws.
“I don’t believe we need to create another category of victims,” he said sternly to a lesbian couple that heckled him after one appearance.
“Exceedingly conservative” is how University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher describes Jeb Bush’s platform. “Because there is a tough primary, his strategy is to just camp out on the right.”
Unless a strong primary challenge emerges, George W. Bush will run against Richards from the outset. He lost a 1978 congressional bid, but is well known in Texas as managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and, before that, for following his father’s footsteps into the oil business.
“My business experience will enable me to provide the strong, independent leadership our state needs from its governor,” Bush said in September when he created a campaign committee to raise money. “My campaign will stress reform and new, creative solutions to help Texas compete and win in our rapidly changing world.”
It is clear the eldest Bush son plans a conservative course much like younger brother Jeb.
“Texas has the fastest growing state budget and state payroll in the country and he is committed to stopping those trends,” said Karl Rove, a GOP consultant helping Bush. The state’s school financing system is in crisis, something Bush blames on Richards.
The Richards camp professes to be eager for the fight.
“Ann Richards is popular because she takes the issues head on and talks no-nonsense to the voters,” said Ed Martin, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “We frankly are real proud to see a race run on that record against a man who has absolutely no qualifications or experience to suggest he could serve as governor.”
History suggests the Texas contest will be colorful. Texas has rough-and-tumble politics to begin with, and there’s a simmering feud between Richards and the Bushes.
At the 1988 Democratic Convention, Richards lampooned then-Vice President Bush as “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” The governor has taken to referring to her likely opponent in her own shorthand for son of a Bush--"Shrub.”
Both Bush brothers seek political advice from their father, and look to their famous parents to campaign for them. Although he lost the 1992 election, George Bush carried Florida and Texas, and Barbara Bush is popular in both states.
“You bet I’m going to campaign,” Mrs. Bush said recently.
But both candidates know they will not succeed unless they become as well known for their business experience as they are for being daddy’s guests at the White House and Camp David.
“We are proud sons of George and Barbara Bush, but there is so much more to it,” said Jeb Bush. “For either of us to win, we have to get way beyond that.”