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National Politics

Will Jeb Bush thwart Rick Perry's chances in Florida?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 06:50 PM

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TAMPA -

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entrance into the presidential primary is putting a spotlight on the most powerful Republican family in Florida and the nation, one with no great love for Rick Perry -- the Bush family.

After only about a week as a presidential candidate, Perry is working hard to establish a presence and a campaign team in Florida, with some initial indications of success.

But questions also have been raised about whether his well-publicized enmity with the Bush family could affect his chances in Florida, where former Gov. Jeb Bush still dominates GOP politics more than any other single individual.

"He's the patriarch," said state Sen. John Thrasher, a long-time Bush supporter. "If you want to do anything in Republican politics in this state, you almost have to go see Jeb."

So far, Jeb Bush is neutral in the primary contest, and apparently isn't pushing friends toward a candidate -- Bush allies have divided up among almost all the significant candidates.

In 2008, Bush remained neutral until after the Florida primary, and then endorsed the winner, John McCain.

But some associates don't expect he'll remain neutral this year.

"I think it's a little different this time" because of the GOP's desire to unseat President Barack Obama, said Justin Sayfie, a former high-level official in Bush's administration as governor.

"Presidential candidates would be wise to be in frequent contact with Gov. Bush," he said.

The Perry campaign is actively contacting uncommitted GOP movers and shakers in Florida, but Sayfie and several other Bush loyalists said before they commit to a candidate, they'd be likely to check with Bush.

"Sure I would," said GOP consultant Ann Herberger. "I owe much of my career and success to him, but more importantly, I trust his judgment and opinion."

Sayfie and Herberger both backed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty until he dropped out.

Perry has successfully recruited at least one prominent GOP rainmaker, A.K, Desai of St. Petersburg.

 

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Though neutral so far, Bush told the conservative political journal Weekly Standard last week that he thinks Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan should run, praising Ryan on what Perry's backers say is their candidate's strongest point, job creation.

Coming immediately after Perry entered the race, the comments have been interpreted as suggesting Bush isn't satisfied with the field of candidates, including Perry.

But Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof, in an email, denied that's what Bush meant, and said Bush's only comments about Perry have been that he's going a "great job" as governor of Texas. She didn't respond to questions about hostility between the Bush family and Perry.

Emhof also said Bush "does not have a timeline for endorsing" any candidate.

There are indications that some Bush family backers don't have problems backing Perry.

Former Ambassador Gregory Slayton of New Hampshire, a major Bush fundraiser, has announced he's devoting his fundraising network to Perry.

But news reports and insider comments about the hostility between Perry and the Bushes have been common for years. They focus not on the former Florida governor, but on the former presidents, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.

Friends of Jeb Bush, reluctant to discuss the subject on the record, differ on whether Jeb Bush could be expected to be swayed by his father's and brother's feelings.

University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan said he has seen "no tendency of Jeb to jump on board when there's an orchestrated message from the [Texas-based] Bush camp."

Ironically, Perry's political career got its single biggest boost from that camp.

In 1998, George W. Bush, with his father's backing, "plucked Perry from relative obscurity and made him lieutenant governor," said veteran Houston political consultant David Hill.

Perry was then state agriculture commissioner, and it was known Bush would run for president two years later. Perry narrowly won the separate election for lieutenant governor, which put him in line to become governor when Bush won the presidency.

 

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But knowledgeable Texans say the two sides represent different political cultures.

"They live in different worlds, travel in different camps, they don't share outlooks on policy or personal styles," said Buchanan.

Buchanan said the hostility is mostly is between the staffs and aides rather than the politicians themselves.

Perry's backers consider the Bushes "country club Republicans," words used by longtime Perry political strategist Dave Carney in a 2009 New York Times interview.

The tension broke open when Perry began distancing himself from Bush late in Bush's presidency, blasting him as insufficiently conservative.

"Lemme share something with you, George Bush was never a fiscal conservative. Never was," he told a group in Iowa while campaigning for Rudy Giuliani in the GOP primary in 2007, according to a widely circulated video. "I mean '95, '97, '99, George Bush was spending money."

Perry criticized Bush over the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit and his No Child Left Behind education initiative.

When Perry ran for re-election as governor in 2010, George H.W. Bush and close George W. Bush aides. from Dick Cheney to Karl Rove, backed a primary challenge from Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Bush family members haven't spoken against Perry's presidential run publicly, but Bush allies, particularly Rove, aren't reluctant to shoot back at Perry.

When Perry accused Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke of "treasonous" behavior last week, Rove responded on Fox News that it was "not a presidential statement."

Hill, the Houston consultant, who has longstanding ties to the Bush family, said he doubts the Bush camp will try to impede Perry's presidential run – even though he continued the Bush tradition of bashing Perry.

Perry, he said, isn't suited to be president. "People with a better understanding of what it takes to run for president and actually be president are slack-jawed that Perry's is running."

Still, he said, the Bushes "have got bigger fish to fry" than trying to sabotage Perry's fundraising. "Rick Perry is going to cut off Rick Perry's money."


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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