Jeb Bush's request (that a state attorney investigate alleged discrepancies in Michael Schiavo's statements about how long he took to call 911 after Terri's collapse) startled even his closest confidants. While critics accused Bush of trying to curry favor with cultural conservatives, "this wasn't a position taken for the purpose of pandering," says one political adviser who was surprised by Bush's intervention and who asked not to be named to avoid appearing disloyal. "It's based entirely on his strong personal bias for protecting life." Though some Bush advisers would have preferred he drop the subject, says another who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, his current circle avoided challenging him. "I think this was his impulse," says the adviser, "and the staff amplified it."

Ill-advised or not, Bush's maneuver only fueled speculation about a possible presidential run in 2008. Given a GOP field that lacks a standout contender, Bush "would automatically be the one to beat" were he to enter, says Mac Stipanovich, a former Bush campaign manager. He's a popular governor who has embarked on pathbreaking reforms in such areas as education and Medicaid, and presided over a robust Florida economy. And he's embraced by the GOP's conservative base. So is Bush planning a run? Though he has repeatedly denied it, "that decision remains to be made," says one of the confidants. Another, who declined to be named so as not to jeopardize his relationship with Bush, believes Bush will end up going for it. "I think the national party will call on him," says this adviser, "and it will be tough to resist."