Brother In The Background

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his big brother, George W, like to share. That includes even the lines they use to distance themselves from their famous parents. "I'm not running because I'm the son of George and Barbara Bush, but because I'm the father of... [insert names of appropriate children here]," both men said in 1994, when they first ran for governorships. More important, both sold themselves to voters as Republicans with hearts. Jeb made "compassion" a touchstone theme of his second, successful run for Florida governor in 1998. Same for W when he launched his presidential campaign from Texas.

Jeb now shares something else with his brother: potential trouble on race issues. The flak from W's appearance at Bob Jones University seems to be fading. But Jeb stirred up his own trouble last month when he ended the use of racial preferences in admission to Florida's 10 public universities and rolled back affirmative action in awarding state contracts. The measures have touched off bitter protests by African-Americans, who charge that Bush is trying to advance his brother's 2000 campaign by playing to conservatives hostile to racial preferences.

It's not that simple. Jeb (like his brother) has never been a great friend of affirmative action. The issue came to the top of his agenda last year, when the conservatives who had pushed through a referendum against such programs in California threatened to target Florida. According to aides, Bush calculated that he could initiate his own reforms--called One Florida--with only a few complaints from the left at a time when his personal popularity was soaring. He was wrong. A series of bitter protests will culminate this week, when 30,000 demonstrators are expected to march on Tallahassee--and the NCAA is considering an economic boycott of the state. Black leaders feel betrayed by Jeb, who ran as a rock-solid conservative in his 1994 loss before reaching out to minorities and moderates four years later. Unless he rolls back his plan, those votes are probably gone. None of this jeopardizes W's prospects against John McCain in the March 14 GOP primary. But some Republicans are worried about November, when a galvanized opposition could deliver the state to the Democrats.

Jeb Bush scoffs at the idea that he is playing family politics. He has gone to bat for W, though, knocking on doors in New Hampshire and South Carolina (the University of Texas Phi Beta Kappa asks voters to support the Yale slacker he calls his "smarter brother"). A converted Catholic with a Mexican-American wife, he told the "Today" show that W's Bob Jones visit didn't make him a bigot. But Jeb says policy wonkery is not part of their relationship. "I don't talk policy that much with my brother," he told NEWSWEEK. "We talk about kids and football." By the time this is all over, they'll almost certainly be talking about hardball, too.