Republican presidential hopeful and Texas Gov. George W. Bush blitzed through a fund-raising tour of Florida today with the man he repeatedly called "my little brother"--Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"It helps to have friends in high places," said George W., who turns 53 next month and is almost seven years older than Jeb, 46. "I'm really proud of my little brother's performance as governor of Florida."
It was a family love-fest as the Bush brothers appeared together publicly for the first time since George W. made it clear last month that he intends to seek the GOP nomination in 2000.
Together, the brothers represent some 35 million Americans in their politically crucial states, giving George W. an unprecedented advantage as he launches his presidential campaign. Texas is the nation's second-most populous state; Florida, which for the first time in years has both a Republican governor and a Republican-dominated state legislature, is No. 4.
Beginning the morning at breakfast in Fort Myers, lunching here in Tampa after a stop at a homeless shelter, continuing on to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and raising $2 million along the way, the brothers dismissed any notion of sibling rivalry.
George W. said that Jeb will serve as his campaign chairman in Florida. But when asked if he would appoint Jeb to a Cabinet position as President John F. Kennedy did with his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the Texan demurred. "Uhhhhhh, no!" he said firmly during a news conference as they visited Metropolitan Ministries, a homeless shelter in Tampa.
He said he would rely on Jeb and other key Florida Republicans to organize a grass-roots campaign for his presidential race here, and joked in big brother fashion, "For the first time in my life, I'm going to do what he tells me to do."
Both brothers made their first bids for the governorships of their respective states in 1994. George W. won in Texas, defeating incumbent Ann Richards in a stunning upset, and easily won reelection last fall. But Jeb failed in his first go-round here against popular incumbent Lawton Chiles. He rebounded smartly in 1998, winning with a huge margin over Chiles's lieutenant governor, Buddy MacKay, and said today he had learned much from his brother's first term as governor of Texas.
"I do believe God has a plan for each and every one of us," Jeb Bush said about his defeat. "It wasn't right for me to be elected in 1994. I think I'm a better man having lost and gone through that. . . . I've also had the luck, if you will, the good fortune, of having watched my brother lead for four years."
Jeb Bush said he believes Washington needs someone like George W. Bush with "his kind of leadership and his big heart, and hopefully, his commitment to changing the tenor of political discourse in this country, which I think is so ugly and so sour and so negative and people are so turned off that it's going to make it hard for the next president to lead."
While George W. Bush is winding down a gratifying week, in which he commended teenagers on sexual abstinence in South Carolina, read to children in Richmond and wowed contributors in Washington, D.C., Jeb Bush has had a rockier time of it the past few days.
Earlier this week, he was forced to explain that his wife, Columba, had declared to U.S. Customs that she had spent $500 during a trip to Paris last week--when, in fact, she had purchased $19,000 in clothing and jewelry--because she feared his reaction, not because she was trying to fool the federal agents.
In another matter, today's Miami Herald reported that the FBI is investigating a firm run by Jeb Bush's former business partner, David Eller, that sold water pumps to Nigeria with loans backed by American taxpayers, reviving a connection that surfaced many times during Jeb Bush's campaign last year. Neither issue came up today.
George W. Bush's visit to Florida was not without awkwardness, however. One of his hosts at tonight's fund-raiser, Remedios Diaz Oliver, pleaded guilty this week in a tax evasion case. Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said it was "unfortunate. We were not aware" of her legal problems. "We are in the midst of a very large series of events."
Diaz Oliver was among 37 people who raised at least $25,000 each. She pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts in return for prosecutors' agreement to drop an 18-count felony indictment.
Jeffrey Ruth, 36, who is living at the shelter here "while I get back on my feet," said he has nothing but praise for both Bush brothers. After shaking hands and sharing a word with George W., he said he will always remember he met a future president of the United States. "I think he's great," said Ruth, an Army veteran. "I like all the morals he stands for. I voted for his father, and I will most definitely vote for George W."
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush, left, and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, sit with Wayne Faison as he reads them a story from computer screen at the Metropolitan Ministries shelter in Tampa.