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Jeb Bush’s ill-starred campaign follows track set by earlier Florida governors

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As Jeb Bush struggles to win the Republican nomination for president, it’s a reminder that he’s sadly following a string of other successful Florida governors who came up far short of capturing the party’s brass ring.

Every Florida governor from 1967 to 1979 ran for president, but none of their candidacies went anywhere. Claude Kirk, elected in 1966, was seriously considered as Richard Nixon‘s running mate in 1968 but lost out to Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew. Kirk lost the governorship in 1970, but it didn’t dampen his national ambitions. Although a Republican, he ran as a Democrat for president in 1984 in New Hampshire.

Reubin Askew beat Kirk in 1970, and in 1976, was considered a legitimate contender if he ran for the Democratic nomination (ultimately won by fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter). But Askew didn’t pull the trigger. He later ran in 1984, and did very poorly.

Then there was Bob Graham, whose 2004 campaign for president similarly went nowhere.

“When you look at these three, you’ll find a lot of different things involved,” said USFSP political science Professor Emeritus Daryl Paulson.

USF political science professor Susan McManus said that in speaking with Graham and Askew, they told her  part of the problem was working with professional consultants who they’d never worked with before.

“The professionalization and overreliance on campaign consultants, who are often picked by the party itself is one reason,” McManus said. She also said that because Florida governors lead more a ideologically diverse state, they then must craft their message to a less varied electorate in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Askew’s problem, some observers say in retrospect, was the political timing.

“If he had run for the White House in ’76 when Carter ran, I think he would have had greater success, I think he would overshadowed Carter in that campaign,” said Paulson. “But when he decided not to run, but did eight years later (in 1984), the timing just wasn’t right.”

In that respect, many analysts say that Askew’s problems echo Bush’s to an extent.

Many Republicans think Jeb to be their best candidate, certainly preferable to Mitt Romney, in 2012. However, coming just four years after George W. Bush‘s controversial tenure (who left office with an approval rating of just 40 percent in 2009), it simply was unpalatable for him to enter the race at the time.

Perhaps Bush’s greatest feat of this campaign has been the prodigious amount of money that his super PAC, Right to Rise, has raised. The “independent” group backing a Bush presidency raised over $114 million in its first six months of this year.

Askew, on the other hand, was known for not enjoying the rigors of campaigning, and definitely not raising money, University of Central Florida professor Aubrey Jewett said.

“He was a very smart guy, but he wasn’t necessarily a ball of fire on the campaign trail,” Jewett said. “Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. His was more on governance, not on the nuts and bolts of winning office.”

In retrospect, former Governor and U.S. Senator Graham’s campaign for the 2004 nomination seemed ill-fated from the start.

Three full months before he ultimately declared his candidacy in 2003, Graham had open-heart surgery. He was 66 at the time, and also wasn’t exactly the most charismatic player in a field that included Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich and the ultimate nominee, John Kerry.

Jewett said unfortunately for Jeb, he similarly scores low on charisma.

“We could compare him to somebody like Ronald Reagan,” the UCF professor surmised. “Whatever ‘it’ is, he had it. Jeb doesn’t have it.”

Left out much of the discussion is Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since reconstruction who held  only one term before losing to in his re-election bid to Askew in 1970. If Askew’s 1984 campaign was ill-timed, what to make of Kirk, who ran as a Democrat and entered the New Hampshire primary that year? Needless to say, it was a very short run indeed.

Back to the here and now, USF’s McManus said that both Bush and Ohio’s John Kasich are victims of bad political timing. She said in a normal election year, their records of reform in Florida and Ohio, respectively, would usually push them to the top of the list of viable candidates. But not this year.

“It isn’t that kind of time right now because there’s been persistent fiscal stress and animosity toward what’s happening in Florida,” she said.

Bush and his campaign people have insisted that once the populace is fully up to speed on the success he had in Florida from 1998-2006, they’ll come on board his campaign. Paulson, though, said the problem is he’s looking backward, not forward.

“After the debate I saw his post debate appearance, ” he said. “He talked about ‘if you want an entertainer, that’s not me, I’m going to win the old-fashioned way.’ “

“Well, that word itself is exactly what he needs to avoid, because people don’t want the old-fashioned way. They want the new, but he hasn’t been able to connect with the voter.”

But he always can find friendly faces back home in Florida, where he’ll be making three separate appearances on Monday.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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