Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that he will seek reelection next year, setting the stage for a political battle royal that likely will become a nationally watched referendum on his older brother's performance in the White House.
Eight Democrats--including former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Pete Peterson, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Vietnam--already are weighing a run for the governorship of America's fourth most-populous state.
Jeb Bush, who was elected by a landslide in 1998 after losing a squeaker four years earlier, made his decision to seek a second term public during a visit to a suburban elementary school in his adopted hometown of Miami.
"There's a window of opportunity in our state to really change the things that need to be changed: protection of the environment, delivery of social services in a compassionate way, tax relief for small businesses, reforming our education system and making sure it's our first priority," Bush said.
The 48-year-old governor added that he would announce his candidacy in a more "formal way" later.
Bush's decision had been expected for months. Bob Poe, chairman of Florida's Democratic Party, predicted "an intense race with national attention and implications."
"Many people nationally view this as one of two things, or a combination: a rerun of 2000 or a preview of 2004," Poe said. "If the Democrats are able to knock off the president's brother in a key swing state--maybe the most key--and have a Democratic governor in here for 2004, then the presidency could be in trouble for George W. Bush."
But state Republicans have been trumpeting the governor's status as Florida's most popular politician. "There is no one out there with near his [opinion poll] numbers," said state Sen. James E. King Jr. "He's still Florida's golden boy." One recent poll by the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida found the governor holding a 56% approval rating.
Those numbers, however, may not tell the entire tale. In November, Bush was seen by many Democrats as doing whatever it took to get his brother elected. The controversy has polarized the Florida electorate like never before, said Jim Kane, head of a nonpartisan polling organization in Fort Lauderdale.
"The Democrats are fairly united now--which is unusual for this state--in their dislike for the Bush brothers," Kane said. "This is going to be a very competitive race, because it will get a lot of media attention, which will increase the level of interest. That will increase the turnout. And higher turnout in Florida always helps Democrats."
When the Miami Herald recently asked 600 likely voters how they would side in a hypothetical Bush-Reno matchup, it found the race very tight: 49% Bush, 43% Reno, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
"He's beatable," said Lois J. Frankel of West Palm Beach, minority leader in the state House of Representatives and another Democratic gubernatorial hopeful.
Nicol Rae, chairman of the political science department at Florida State University in Miami, believes Bush could be vulnerable because of the public's tendency to lump him and the president together. Jeb Bush might lose not through any fault of his own, Rae said, but because of something President Bush is blamed for.
Before becoming governor, Bush never had held elective office. His formative experience was as a real estate developer. Once elected Florida's 43rd governor, he presided over nearly $1.8 billion in tax cuts, including $175 million this spring.
Bush's policies have irked some of the state's most powerful interest groups, including teachers and organized labor. Support among African Americans, damaged by alleged election irregularities last fall, also has been badly eroded by the governor's "One Florida" program to end gender and racial preferences in state hiring, contracting and public university admissions.