2008 hopefuls woo Bush clan donors, aides

Times Staff Writer

With the Bushes preparing to stand down from a quarter century in top elected offices, a frenzied competition has erupted in the Republican Party over who will inherit a fundraising and vote-getting machine built by the family over the years into one of the most valuable assets in modern politics.

At stake is access to an elaborate national network of corporate givers, campaign strategists and grass-roots volunteers who have repeatedly propelled the Bushes to victory -- a network that could now give a new contender the inside track to winning the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination.

The leading potential heirs to that political fortune so far are Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a onetime rival to the current President Bush and presumed front-runner for the nomination, and, a bit surprisingly, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has emerged as a top-tier contender by wooing social conservatives considered crucial in the early primary contests.

Adding to the drama, a sibling divide appears to be emerging among aides closest to President Bush and his brother, outgoing Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Some key members of Gov. Bush's tight-knit inner circle have signed up to help Romney, while several of President Bush's senior strategists have gone to McCain. They include the media advisor and political director for the president's 2004 campaign.

The fight for the Bush family mantle demonstrates that, even after the plunge in the president's popularity and the GOP's thumping in the midterm election, the family network remains the single most powerful force in Republican Party politics.

It is a machine born four decades ago, when Barbara and George H.W. Bush moved to Texas and began to build a political life -- meticulously filling index cards with names of possible supporters and dutifully sending out Christmas greetings each year. Far from that simple, mid-20th century approach, today's GOP relies on a broad database of backers across the country whose relationships have been nurtured by generations of Bushes.

From the family's West Texas oil fortunes and Wall Street connections half a century ago, the network has grown to include the big-money fundraisers, dubbed "pioneers" and "rangers," who helped George W. Bush raise more than $500 million for his two presidential campaigns.

It also includes Bush family loyalists such as Karl Rove, who have, over the last six years, presided over the GOP's creation of the most exhaustive voter-targeting operation available, an infrastructure that relies on databases of voter names and the enthusiasm of ground-level workers and volunteers.

"The Bush name is the gold standard in Republican primaries," said Mark McKinnon, former media advisor to President Bush, who is now working with McCain. Hiring staffers viewed as close to the family, he said, "helps confer some credibility and experience or acceptability."

While the 2008 hopefuls are vying for the Bush family's fundraising and field organizing network, a more complex question is whether they want to be seen as inheriting the Bush political ideology. Widely criticized for starting the Iraq war and running large budget deficits, President Bush's brand of conservatism is in disfavor.

Jeb Bush, on the other hand, is adored by religious conservatives for his role in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case and for his support for school choice in Florida. He is praised by economic conservatives for cutting millions in taxes and backing efforts to privatize some government services. While the president's approval ratings hover in the 30s or low 40s, Florida polls show that Gov. Bush's ratings are into the 60s, and several party strategists have put Jeb Bush's name forward as a potential nominee for vice president in 2008.

Officially, both Jeb and George W. Bush are neutral in the presidential race. As the leader of his political party, the president traditionally sits out the primary contests. Gov. Bush so far is following suit -- though he has told former aides that he and Romney are similar in ideology and governing style.

Rove, President Bush's senior political advisor, also has not taken sides in the 2008 race, though he may be eager to get involved in order to show that the GOP defeats this year do not signal the end of his vision of long-term Republican dominance.

The overt indicators of jockeying for the Bush political assets have come in a series of announcements from the McCain and Romney camps, boasting of support from national- and state-level supporters with a variety of Bush family ties.

Other signs have been more subtle. A ceremony last week in the Florida State House, honoring Jeb Bush's service as governor, included a 15-minute presentation featuring images of the governor with Romney and another potential 2008 contender, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. One photo depicted Romney and Jeb Bush with broad grins, standing together in Romney's Boston office.

But the presentation was most notable for what it lacked: There was no photo of Jeb Bush with McCain. The absence of a McCain photo seemed to carry meaning. The presentation, with its implied signal of Jeb Bush's preferences among the GOP presidential field, was played last week for the governor's staffers and state lawmakers, many of whom are being courted by the 2008 contenders.

The presentation was produced by one of the governor's longtime advisors, Sally Bradshaw, who is now a Romney strategist. Bradshaw is so close to Jeb Bush that it is unlikely she would work for any of the 2008 candidates without his blessing. In an interview, Bradshaw said that Jeb Bush only "encouraged me" to meet with Romney, insisting that the Florida governor is not trying to indicate a favorite in the race.

Besides Bradshaw, Romney has enlisted Ann Herberger, the keeper of Jeb Bush's fundraising Rolodex. Also with Romney are Bush's lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, and the man Bush once hand-picked to lead the state GOP, Miami lawyer Al Cardenas. Romney's decision to focus so heavily on Jeb Bush's team points to a key factor in explaining how the Massachusetts governor has emerged as a leading GOP contender, despite having run for office in the past as a moderate in a liberal state.

Romney has presented himself as the strongest conservative in the race and the most viable alternative to McCain, who is distrusted by many conservative voters for his breaks from the party line and past opposition to Bush. By aligning with Jeb Bush, Romney is associating himself with a popular brand of conservatism.

Romney aides insist that they have drawn support from both the Jeb and George sides of the Bush family, signing on two former White House economists as domestic policy advisors and a former speechwriter for President Bush as an outside advisor. McCain has sought to broaden his reach into the extended Bush family, as well, and his aides dismiss the idea of a sibling divide in advance of the 2008 race. He recently enlisted support from Florida businessman Phil Handy, a close Jeb Bush friend, and has secured help from Robert Mosbacher, a longtime friend of George H. W. Bush and chief fundraiser in his successful 1988 campaign for president. Mosbacher is the honorary Texas chairman of McCain's presidential exploratory committee.

One could read that as a sign that the first President Bush supports McCain, said John Weaver, a top McCain advisor. "But I'm not doing that," he quickly added. The Bush family has dominated Republican politics for so many years that it is often hard to tell where the family ties end and the party machinery begins. Some strategists argue that the "Bush family primary" is merely a reflection of the family's broad reach in party politics, and that any competent strategist has at one time or another worked for a Bush.

"It's difficult to conceive a candidate with a winning team that's not integrated by a significant number of Bush family loyalists," Cardenas said.

Some of the most prominent Bush-aligned campaign aides may sit out the 2008 race.

Outgoing Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman is said to be pursuing more lucrative corporate jobs. Another top advisor to President Bush, lobbyist and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, has already decided to focus more locally. He is preparing to become chairman of the Virginia GOP and, associates say, plot his own possible Senate bid in that state.

To associates of both Jeb and George W. Bush, Romney's success in moving into their network has been a surprise.

One former campaign staff member to President Bush said that Romney has been the buzz of the elaborate network of Bush helpers who are being rewarded with White House receptions and other get-togethers during the holiday season.

"It seems like about 50-50," said the former staffer, referring to the split among these Bush supporters between McCain and Romney.

This is no surprise to anyone who has been on the receiving end of Romney's entreaties.

Earlier this month, after a meeting of GOP governors in Orlando, Fla., Romney traveled north to Panama City in Florida's panhandle for a meeting with local businessman Allan G. Bense, who recently ended a two-year tenure as speaker of the state House.

Bense, a Jeb Bush ally, is no stranger to high-level courtship, having rejected personal appeals by Rove and Gov. Bush to run for the Senate this year in place of the controversial Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.).

But when Romney made the effort to come to his house, Bense said he could not say no.

"He had called and called back and called back, and finally he came to the house," Bense said. "I have all the respect in the world for Sen. McCain, who is a hero. But it's just that Gov. Romney pushed and worked. And like in sales, he asked me for my business. And the product he was selling was one that I liked."

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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