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Jeb Bush's worst day

Now that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is running for president, much is being written about him. But so far little has been written about the worst day in Bush's political career. Crowley Political Report was with him, until 3:30 a.m when he ended the morning telling his campaign manager a sad, "not now."

November 10, 1994

By BRIAN E. CROWLEY - Palm Beach Post Political Editor

MIAMI - In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Jeb Bush stood in the hotel hallway outside his election-night headquarters holding his first glass of scotch in two years.

His eyes, red from too little sleep and the pain of losing the closest race for governor since 1876, teared up as he hugged his campaign manager, Sally Harrell.

''You did a great job,'' Bush said. ''It was the candidate who failed you.''

Not entirely.

Bush was defeated in his first campaign for governor by incumbent Democrat Lawton Chiles for reasons more complicated than simple candidate failure. Misjudgment, poor timing, failure to act quickly at crucial moments and a critical misunderstanding of just how determined Chiles was to win a second term all contributed to Bush's loss.

Bush captured the imagination of the Republican Party early in his 18-month quest to become governor. Republican leaders understood the benefits of having the son of a former president head the GOP ticket. But Bush, determined to be more than just his father's son, began a grueling, six-day-a-week, 16-hour-a-day campaign schedule that took him repeatedly to every major city and nearly every town in the state.

His journey began with him and an aide riding across the state in a car, progressed to motor homes and ended with a three-jet, six-city tour in the final hours of the campaign.

By the end, Bush was being greeted like a rock star by huge crowds shouting, ''Jeb! Jeb! Jeb!'' The use of his first name was a deliberate effort to separate himself from his famous last name.

Still, Bush was not shy about using his family name to his advantage. As Chiles would often say: ''Where would Bush be if his name were Jeb Smith?'' One answer is clear: Bush would not have raised the $ 8.8 million that was contributed to his campaign without his parents' help. In four campaign appearances for their second son, George and Barbara Bush raised more than $ 3 million.

One thing they could not do, despite frequent phone calls and bits of advice from his father, was prevent Bush from making some critical mistakes. Those mistakes cost him the clear win that appeared to be his shortly after his stunning victory in the GOP primary.

His campaign underestimated Chiles' willingness to go on the attack. They also believed, incorrectly his advisers now admit, that questions about Bush's business ethics had been successfully dealt with during the GOP primary.

But Bush was not confronted during the primary with the same withering, unrelenting television ads questioning his judgment and honesty.

Worse, Bush failed to respond quickly to Chiles' first attack, accusing Bush of making a profit from a failed savings and loan. Chiles was able to keep the ad on the air a week before Bush was able to answer with an ad of his own. A common belief among political advisers is that an attack unanswered will be accepted as true by voters, and Bush had clearly waited too long.

CHILES IN TROUBLE EARLY

Meanwhile the Chiles campaign was having its own problems after facing just token opposition in the Democratic primary. It was badly floundering. His staff was in disarray. His campaign was poorly organized. There was no coherent message and the campaign was failing to give voters a reason to give Chiles a second term.

At times he seemed old and tired and not really interested in his campaign. His first two debates with Bush were disasters. He lost his temper, seemed unable to focus and his staff was worried that he would not be able to handle the final, most important debate, a statewide television forum hosted by Tim Russert of Meet the Press.

Much to Bush's surprise, a fired-up Chiles gave a powerful performance that captured the imagination of his supporters and for the first time created the impression that Chiles had a serious chance of winning. After Bush's strong performance in the second debate, he stumbled when it mattered, struggling to make his points over the catcalls of a partisan crowd.

DROPOUT SURPRISED CHILES

But polls showed Chiles slightly behind Bush, who had won his party's nomination with 46 percent of the vote. It was such a strong showing that his runoff rival, Secretary of State Jim Smith, simply surrendered without a fight.

Bush had been ecstatic. Without a runoff, he could start his campaign against Chiles a month early. That was something Chiles had not expected and was not prepared for.

''That threw us off,'' Chiles said Tuesday. ''We had prepared for a one-month campaign.''

Chiles was also having trouble raising money. Part of the problem is his self-imposed $ 100 limit. But that had not stopped him four years ago from raising more than $ 6 million. This time, Chiles raised less than $ 3 million on his own, not near enough to win a major statewide race.

But Chiles also was accepting tax money under the state's campaign finance laws. That meant he had to limit spending to $ 5 million unless Bush, who was not taking state money and had no limit, spent more than $ 5 million. Under the law, Chiles was entitled to $ 1 from the state for every $ 1 over $ 5 million that Bush spent.

Bush tried to delay his spending as long as possible, but in the end he spent $ 8.8 million. Nearly half of it he spent winning the primary nomination. Chiles got nearly $ 6 million from the state and was able to outspend Bush in the final days of the campaign.

DEATH ROW AD BIGGEST TEST

The biggest test of the Chiles campaign came when Bush put up an ad featuring Wendy Nelson, the mother of a young girl who was murdered. In the ad, Nelson appeared to be blaming Chiles for the fact that her daughter's killer was still on Death Row 14 years after the murder because he was not signing death warrants fast enough.

It was a powerful ad that captured the imagination of voters afraid of crime. But there was a serious flaw in the ad, made worse when Bush was asked about it: There is nothing Chiles can do to speed the execution.

When Bush was asked whether signing a death warrant immediately would change the outcome of the case, he said no.

In effect, Bush was saying his own commercial was wrong the very day he began airing it. Chiles quickly seized on that, running his own commercial saying Bush said it was wrong. Chiles toured the state with prosecutors and former Florida Supreme Court justices saying Bush didn't know what he was talking about.

''If I had to do that ad all over again, I'd do it different,'' Bush campaign adviser J.M. ''Mac'' Stipanovich said. ''We should have made it clear somehow that we were not suggesting that Chiles could do anything about Wendy's case in particular, because we didn't and it got us in trouble.''

''He had made the campaign focus on me,'' Chiles said. ''I had to make the campaign focus on him.''

INTEGRITY A KEY ISSUE

With polls showing that voters had doubts about Bush's integrity, Chiles began pounding on the theme that Bush could not be trusted. In every commercial, no matter what the subject, Chiles ended with the tagline: ''That's why we can't trust Jeb Bush with our future.''

Convinced that Chiles could be defeated on the crime issue, the Bush campaign made a tactical decision not to respond to the trust question. They believed that doing so would change the focal point of the campaign from a question about Chiles' ability to deal with crime to more difficult personal debate about Bush's business dealings.

Also, after years in the spotlight as the son of a president, Bush had ordered his staff not use information it had gathered about questionable business dealings involving Chiles' son, Bud. He had publicly embarrassed the governor a number of times while lobbying and doing business in Tallahassee.

Bush also hurt his credibility by picking state Rep. Tom Feeney of Orlando to be his running mate. Some of Bush's advisers had hoped he would pick someone with more political experience. Feeney, with only four years in office, never seemed to be quite ready for prime time.

And he made the worst mistake a running mate can make: He embarrassed the top of the ticket by saying Bush had associated with people who later were found out to be ''crooks and deadbeats.''

Feeney had been attempting to defend Bush but instead gave Chiles and editorial writers around the state a deadly sound bite. Plus, Feeney was being portrayed by Chiles as a religious zealot and political extremist who had sponsored a resolution to dissolve the United States if the federal deficit ever exceeded $ 6 trillion.

PALM BEACH COUNTY FOCUS

Bush and Feeney's missteps helped Chiles enormously as he focused his attention on South Florida. He needed to win by huge margins in Palm Beach and Broward counties and at least break even in Dade County to offset Bush's strength elsewhere in the state.

Targeting blacks, women and the elderly, Chiles used careless statements by Bush to pummel his opponent in advertising and mail. Blacks were told that Bush had said he would do ''probably nothing'' for them. Women were told that Bush was a sexist who believed poor women should ''find a husband'' to make their lives better. And the elderly were told that Bush wanted to take away their Social Security and health-care benefits.

The scare tactics combined with a fierce get-out-the-vote effort among minorities and senior citizens piled up Chiles' votes in South Florida.

While Bush would defeat Chiles in 41 of Florida's 67 counties, South Florida was extraordinarily kind to Chiles. Palm Beach County gave him nearly a 75,000-vote edge over Bush. Broward County gave him a whopping 123,000-vote margin. And Dade County, the only South Florida county where Bush expected to win, handed Chiles a 17,000-vote victory.

75,000-VOTE MARGIN

Those votes helped Chiles overcome Bush's strength elsewhere, giving Chiles a second term by fewer than 75,000 votes out of the 4.17 million cast. Four years ago, Chiles defeated Republican incumbent Bob Martinez by 462,000 votes.

Chiles believes that his victory also came in part because a lot of people are actually participating in the administration's initiatives - like school advisory councils, health boards and juvenile boards - and got frightened.

''When they got scared and saw all of that might be ripped up, they said, 'We don't want to let that happen,' '' Chiles said.

By 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Bush, surrounded by key members of his staff, his wife stroking his hair, was listening to those around him talk about 1998.

''If he runs, he'll be an 800-pound gorilla,'' Stipanovich said. ''You got to think about this, Jeb.''

With a weary smile, Bush just shook his head and said, ''Not now.''

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Pat Roberts

There will be worse days during his campaigning!

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