The candidate was walking through a hotel lobby at Walt Disney World, speaking earnestly about his qualifications to hold office, when a voice behind him interrupted with a familiar one-word shriek:
John Ellis Bush -- son of the former president, heir to a burgeoning political dynasty and Republican nominee for governor of Florida -- turned and saw an elderly woman clutching a camera and waving her right hand.
"I just love you!" she squealed, like a teenager encountering a rock star. "Can I get your picture?"
Politely, as always, Bush obliged, instructing an aide to snap his photograph with the fan, who was dwarfed by his lean, 6-foot, 4-inch frame. The smiling woman went on her way, and Bush continued talking about his campaign to unseat Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in the Nov. 8 election.
It was a routine interruption, one of the frequent intrusions of celebrity upon what is the most ideological of campaigns. But the incident illustrated the hurdles that Bush must still overcome if he is to defeat Chiles.
Despite more than a year of campaigning, including a hard-fought victory in a crowded Republican primary last month, and despite a steady lead in the polls, Bush still hasn't persuaded many Floridians that he should be the next governor for reasons other than his political pedigree.
It is, as Bush likes to say, a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, Bush's very name -- which, to some, evokes the final years of the Ronald Reagan era in American politics -- attracts many voters, particularly those disillusioned with Democrats like President Clinton and Chiles. Whether on the campaign trail in the Panhandle or strolling around a Disney World resort, Bush is continually approached by strangers who ask about his parents or even encourage him to someday run for president himself.
On the other hand, the luster of his fame prompts critics, particularly Chiles and his supporters, to portray Bush as a dilettante who is dabbling in the family business simply because he has nothing better to do. They allege he exploited his name to amass a personal fortune, and suggest he has shown a lack of integrity in running his Miami real-estate business. In an effort to create doubts about Bush's trustworthiness and inexperience, Chiles has begun closing his campaign ads with the assertion, "We just can't trust Jeb Bush with our future."
The attacks anger Bush, who insists he has done nothing improper and says the assaults divert attention from his ideas. At 41, he is running for governor in his first bid for elective office because, he says, he has a vision for the state's future that offsets his lack of government experience, which encompasses only a two-year stint as the state commerce secretary in the late 1980s.
"I want to make a difference," he said at Disney World after the elderly admirer got her picture. "This isn't a career for me. It's not a career move. I'm on a mission."
Now it's up to Florida voters to decide whether they want to go along for the ride.
In the Florida that Bush envisions, life is free of ambiguity.
Welfare mothers should either get a job, get private charity or get a husband -- anything to remove them from the public dole.
Prison inmates should be locked up for at least 85 percent of their sentences, no matter how much money it takes away from other government programs.
Parents should be able to send their children to whatever school they choose, and the government should pay even if they pick a private school.
Taxes are such an anathema that they should never be raised without voters' approval.
This is the agenda for Bush's mission, a platform so conservative that it exceeds anything his father, former President George Bush, ever promoted. Chiles and other critics have reduced it to a single word: "radical."
For a time, especially as he courted right-wing voters before the Republican primary, Bush defiantly embraced the slur. Now that he is seeking votes from a broader spectrum of Floridians in the general election, he is instead depicting his viewpoint as "mainstream."
"It's not radical," he said during an interview. "It might be different. It might be provocative. But it's not out of the mainstream."
Radical or provocative, Bush's opinions on what he describes as his core issues of crime, education, welfare and taxes are strongly held -- and not subject to negotiation. He would probably never put it this way, because it would sound disrespectful to his father, but his platform is built on more than "read-my-lips, no-new-taxes" political expedience.
When his father accepted a tax increase to reduce the federal deficit, an agreement that haunted his 1992 re-election bid, "he made a political mistake because he trusted the Democrats," Bush said recently. "It was a violation of trust with people. You don't get many bullets. In those areas where you're making an imprint, you can't let them down."
But the younger Bush's steadfastness sometimes borders on rigidity. One night in Tampa, after he had debated his opponents before the GOP primary, a middle-aged woman from the audience suggested that he change his position on abortion, which he opposes. The woman said she agreed with Bush's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, who supports a woman's right to a legal abortion.
"Most people do," Bush replied, without hesitating. "I don't."
End of discussion.
"I don't expect everybody to agree with everything I say," he said during another campaign trip to Tampa. But "I want people to know I'm sincere in my beliefs and I'm not fooling."
Bush's conservative beliefs weren't always so deeply held. When he was a high school student in the late 1960s, he said he experimented with liberalism, just as he did with marijuana and long hair.
But mostly during those years, Bush said, he was "apolitical" -- barely interested in the Vietnam War or the day's other issues, even though his father was in Congress at the time and his grandfather was a former U.S. senator from Connecticut.
Bush, whose brother George W. is running for governor of Texas this year, recalls little political conversation in the family home as he grew up, neither in Midland, Texas, -- where his father, a transplanted Yankee aristocrat, was in the oil business and Jeb was born on Feb. 11, 1953 -- nor later in Houston, where the family moved when Jeb, the second of the five Bush children, was 6.
"To this day we don't talk politics too much," Bush said last spring in one of a series of interviews over the past two years. "I'm the only one who likes (to talk about) issues and policy. I enjoy it. But sitting around the kitchen table with my family, we talk about sports."
By all accounts, Bush was a good athlete growing up, talented at hitting a baseball and swinging a tennis racket. He attended a public elementary school before transferring to a private school, then followed the family tradition at Andover, the exclusive prep school in New Hampshire.
When he was 17, he visited Leon, Mexico, through an exchange program and met Columba Garnica Gallo, a year younger and more than a foot shorter than he. They became pen pals after he returned to Andover, and two years later, when he was a student at the University of Texas, he proposed.
They married on Feb. 23, 1974, in a ceremony attended only by members of their immediate families and the Bush family housekeeper. Jeb gave Columba a wedding ring that had belonged to his mother's grandmother. A few months later, he received a degree in Latin American studies and a Phi Beta Kappa key after just 2 1/2 years at the university. In her bestselling book "Barbara Bush: A Memoir," Bush's mother writes that he did well in school to impress Columba.
"He wanted to prove he was serious," the former first lady writes. "She thought he was a rich man's son and a playboy."
Bush, who converted to Roman Catholicism from his family's Episcopalian faith before his wedding, recently told The Miami Herald that his wife is the only woman with whom he has ever slept.
After graduation, Bush landed a job with a Dallas-based bank, which posted him in Caracas, Venezuela. He stayed there until 1979, when his father launched his first bid for the presidency. The son eventually worked on the father's Florida primary campaign, and decided to settle in Miami, where his wife's mother and sister lived, after the presidential bid ended.
It was a fortuitous decision.
Shortly after George Bush was sworn in as vice president in 1981, Jeb Bush took a job selling real estate in Miami for a Cuban immigrant named Armando Codina. And he soon became a conduit for people in Miami, particularly members of the Cuban exile community, who wanted to get messages to the White House.
Before long, Bush became a popular figure among Miami's Cuban-Americans, a symbol of the Republican administration's fervent anti-communist commitment.
And before long, partly as a result of his newfound prominence, Bush got involved in a series of complex business deals that are still raising questions a decade or more later. Along the way, Bush became a millionaire. His federal income tax returns, which he has released to reporters, show that his earnings grew from a relatively modest $43,998 in 1981 to $1.2 million in 1990, $482,000 in 1991 and $1.2 million again in 1992 -- years when his father was president.
Chiles has recently suggested that Bush got rich by capitalizing on his father's position. But numerous investigations into Bush's financial life by news organizations and a researcher hired by the Florida Democratic Party have unearthed no smoking gun pointing to illegal acts.
Nevertheless, in several cases it is clear that Bush did business with people who turned out to be, as his running mate Tom Feeney put it, "crooks and deadbeats."
In the most publicized instance, a partner of Bush's in a deal to buy a Miami office tower defaulted on a $4.5 million loan from a Broward County savings and loan, contributing to the thrift's failure.
Because the partner had used the loan to cover his stake in the building deal, federal banking regulators could have seized the office tower from Bush's group to cover the unpaid balance. Instead, regulators allowed Bush and Codina to pay the federal government $505,000 to keep the building, and the government wrote off the remaining $4 million. Regulators later said it was the best deal they could have gotten in the depressed Miami real estate market in the late 1980s.
Bush and Codina, with whom he had by then become a partner, later sold the building for $8.7 million, and Bush has said repeatedly he ended up making no money on the deal.
In a recent interview, Bush said the questioned deals represent just a handful of the thousands of transactions his real-estate company has completed through the years.
"Did I do anything wrong? That should be the first question," he said. "The answer is no. Yes, there are isolated cases where people ended up doing bad things. ... These things happen. Am I proud of it? No. Did I do anything wrong? No."
Bush wants voters to focus on his ideas, not his business record or even his celebrity.
At campaign events, he bemoans the "creeping collectivism" of modern society, "this silent march to socialism." He talks about his children -- George P., 18, Noelle, 17, and Jeb Jr., 11 -- and the uncertain future they and others face if the state doesn't embark on a new course.
But Bush can't escape either the nagging questions or the fame, even at a place like Disney World, which is so filled with out-of-state tourists that any Florida politician ought to be anonymous.
It was there one day recently that Chiles repeatedly attacked his business record during a radio debate. And afterward, as Bush walked around one of the Disney resorts to unwind, he was approached by a succession of people who recognized his now-famous face: A man from Louisville, Ky., who had worked on his father's first presidential campaign. A maintenance man in a golf cart. Members of a film crew from cable television's Disney Channel. The elderly woman who wanted to take his picture.
While he didn't exactly seem to enjoy the renown, Bush did act resigned to the fact that who he is may be as important to the race for governor as what he is.
"The irony is, this process has been a redemptive one," Bush said, asserting that the bright spotlight has absolved his -- and his family's -- name. "In my heart, I know I've not done anything that would disqualify me for service. If I felt doubts about it, it might be different. But I have no doubts."
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