Frustration and loathing on the campaign trail

It's wet-neck, soaked-shirt hot inside the Cocoa Beach Pier Restaurant. Either the air conditioner isn't up to snuff or there are just too many bodies crammed into the dining room. Of course, 200 Republicans in full flag-waving, patriotic frenzy can heat up a place quickly. Make that 200 Republicans, one unreconstructed Vermont liberal accompanying his mother-in-law and a medium-size press corps.

We are all waiting for Gov. Jeb Bush to arrive and kick off his Central Florida bus tour, a preprimary campaign sweep through the heart of the Sunshine State. But Bush is stuck in traffic and running an hour late. In the meantime, there's little to do but mill about, eat coconut shrimp and ask supporters what they think of their man Jeb. The answers are as uninspiring as they are predictable.

"I think he's honest," says Nancy Pinkerton of Melbourne. "Just by the way he presents himself. I think that's refreshing in today's world."

"I like him because he's an honorable man," reports Irene Bush, no relation, a member of the Republican Women of Indian River County.

And so on.

In spite of the heat and the rhetoric, there's a real sense of excitement about this campaign tour, as if Florida Repub-licans are finally waking up to the fact that there is going to be a race. Pressing the flesh has taken on a new sense of urgency for the governor, and Bush is good at it. He will shake hands and pose for pictures until his staff rolls their eyes and almost shoves him out the door.

Campaign stumping is about preaching to the choir and posing for the cameras. Nonetheless, I've got some questions I'd like to ask Bush, and his people dangled the possibility of some face time as he cruises from Cocoa Beach to Lakeland aboard a donated, $1.2 million RV that serves as his campaign home on wheels. (He may be a man of the people but let's not forget he's also a Bush.) It would be nice to talk to him outside the rigid confines of a campaign tour. Sadly I never get the chance.

"He's coming!" squeals a retirement-age woman in a bright-red "Jeb!" T-shirt. She's flushed from running all the way up the Cocoa Beach Pier to deliver the news. "He's coming and I got his autograph!"

And suddenly John Ellis Bush is among us, tall, avuncular and self-assured. At the podium the governor seizes control of the room with an uplifting tale about Brevard county kids attending an "F" school, as labeled by Bush's own A-Plus school-grading program.

"I know in my heart that God has given every one of these children the ability to learn," he says. "It's not created by the governor, it is divinely given to these children." He repeated that line three more times during the day. Divine inspiration plays in Central Florida.

After the rally, the press corps gets exactly two minutes with the governor. A TV person gets in the one and only question, about who Bush wants to win in the Democratic primary. He says he doesn't care, that he is looking forward to the fight, then gets on his bus and hauls ass to Orlando.

On the short bus

There is only room for one or two reporters in Jeb's land yacht, and the coveted spots go to reporters from the big papers: The Miami Herald, The Tampa Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, and so on. The rest of us -- numbering six -- ride behind the bus in a rented van.

At least they feed us. Martha Pratt, Bush's amiable assistant, hands out brown-bag lunches just like mom would have made. The red, white and blue sugar cookies sealed in a Ziploc bag really were a nice touch.

Talk in the press van centered around crowd counts. And here I'll divulge a little press secret: It's not as important for mainstream journalists to be exact as it is for them to be consistent. If The Miami Herald reporter counts 300 people at the rally, for example, and The Tampa Tribune only tabs 200, editors at one or both papers will not be pleased. When scribbling down the first draft of history, consistency equals comfort.

And so before the van got five miles out of town, we came to the consensus that there were 200 people at the Cocoa Beach rally. Then we hash out the exact wording of a particular quote, and tuck into our sandwiches. No talk of scandals or political shenanigans, not a word about special-interest groups, education funding or the last presidential election.

"You write anything about John Grant?" I asked Shannon Behnken of The Tampa Tribune.

"No," she answered. "Who's he?"

Grant is a former state senator from Tampa and one of the people I want to ask Bush about. In August, the governor appointed Grant to the Florida Commission on Ethics, a group Bush created to help stiffen anti-corruption laws in Florida. The governor, as many might recall but the press seems to have forgotten, came into office in 1999 promising to clean up state politics.

Grant is an interesting choice to appoint to the commission, to say the least. While the press couldn't get enough of the writings of Jerry Regier, Bush's fundamentalist appointee to the Department of Children and Families, nary a word appeared about Grant. That's surprising given that in 1997 Grant threatened to pull funding from the University of South Florida because the university invited Olympic gold-medallist Greg Louganis to speak there. Louganis is gay, and Grant doesn't approve. The senator also longed to put the Ten Commandments in every school and wanted to ban nude sunbathing.

Grant's connections with the insurance industry, however, are more troubling than his right-wing Christian worldview. His Tampa law firm represented insurance companies that directly benefited from legislation passed by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, which he chaired between 1994 and 1996. He even served on the board of directors of one company that got rebates from the state and received a $1,500 a year bonus because of the connection.

A 1996 editorial in the Tribune summed it up nicely: "Why does Sen. John Grant's name keep popping up in connection with ethical dilemmas?"

Among the sheep

As the governor's bus pulls into the Rosen Center Hotel parking lot for the Orlando stop, two Greenpeace activists march out of the bushes and unfurl a banner that reads, "Stop Global Warming, Clean Energy Now." It's the only evidence of dissent all day, but everyone in the press van ignores the duo.

Inside Bush takes the podium at stop No. 2. He talks about wholesome family life, mentions building an economic "field of dreams," then repeats his education parable: "God gave these children a chance to learn, of course."

He mentions not a word about the class-size initiative, teacher salaries or vouchers, more of the things I'd like to bring up with him on that RV. But Pratt puts my chances of getting onboard at near zero. "Unfortunately there are only three legs on this trip so we can't rotate everybody on," she says.

Outside, at the staged two-minute press conference, a reporter asks Bush about a story that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times. For the first time all day the governor gets a bit of fire in his eyes. "I don't have time to read every newspaper clip," he almost snarls. "Fortunately I'm busy."

And in that two-second interchange, the Bush campaign strategy becomes crystal clear: Wow the populace with 1,000-watt star power, and keep the media as far away as possible. It could be that our governor genuinely loves the people as much as he utterly loathes the press.

What's frustrating is how sheepishly the media plays along, at least on the campaign trail. Reporters are content just to get on the big bus and certainly aren't going to compromise their ride by angering the man. And make no mistake: It's out here, in the next 60 days, that the governor will win or lose.

Before we get to Lakeland the campaign pulls over for a little glad-handing at a Bob Evans restaurant. It's a page right out of the Clinton campaign handbook, fast-food and all, notes one reporter stuck in the press van. Then he half-apologizes for the remark.

In the hour between Orlando and Lakeland, I would have loved to talk to Bush about the 2000 presidential election, about voter-disenfranchisement laws and education-spending that barely keeps up with student growth. Maybe there would have been enough time to go into ancient history, circa Miami in the early '80s, and talk about his old buddy Miguel Recarey, who made a lucrative career out of fleecing the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development until he fled the country in 1987. Then perhaps we could chat about his ex-business partner Armando Codina, and how the $4.5 million loan the two forfeited on helped break Broward Federal Savings in 1986.

But there are more pressing matters at hand. The assembled press corps is busy figuring out who ordered the stop at Bob Evans. Was it the governor or one of his astute campaign aides? It was the governor, we conclude.

The bus moves on to Lakeland, where the third and final crowd of flag-waving, Jeb-shirted Republicans awaits. He tells the assembled that he prays before making hard decisions, that his compass always points north (whatever that means), and he praises his brother for going after "evildoers" in the Middle East.

Then comes the line: "God has given every child the ability to learn." And the crowd goes wild.