Talk about Alligator Alley: The Primary Was a Fiasco, and Family Trouble Hit the Headlines. What Jeb Bush's Troubles Say about 2002

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Byline: Arian Campo-Flores and Howard Fineman

As weeks go in a governor's life, this last one was especially dismal for Jeb Bush--even by the bleak standards of Florida. First, police disclosed that his daughter, Noelle--in drug rehab in Orlando since February--had been found with a small rock of crack cocaine secreted in her shoe. The next day, primary Election Day, ended in the kind of scene Bush had pledged to avoid after the fiasco of 2000: long lines, lost ballots and rumors of misdeeds in Miami. The likely bottom line in the disputed Democratic gubernatorial race isn't the one Bush wanted. Despite a possible challenge by Janet Reno, Bush probably will have to face Bill McBride--a Marine, Vietnam vet and Tampa lawyer whom Republicans clearly view as the tougher challenger. Finally, at the end of the week Bush was in front of the TV cameras, urging calm while authorities--with robots and bomb-sniffing dogs--investigated what turned out to be a phony terrorism threat by three medical students on their way to a hospital in Miami. "Jeb's exhausted," said longtime adviser Corey Tilley. "It's been tough, and just too weird."

Jeb's ride wasn't supposed to be so bumpy. Time was--and it wasn't many years ago--when he, and not the eldest Bush son, was the favored heir in a family intent on retaking the White House. But while his underestimated brother is a president with a 70 percent job-approval rating, Jeb gets the onerous task of maintaining Republican control over the most treacherous ground in politics. He is favored to win re-election, but his tough road is emblematic of an important feature of this fall's campaign. The GOP may hold its own in Congress, but in several "megastates" (Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and Illinois), resurgent Democrats and changing demographics are threatening rickety Republican machines--and, by extension, big brother's chances in 2004.

In the White House there remains no more important midterm priority than ensuring Jeb's survival. The president and the rest of the family, led by Ma and Pa, have helped the governor amass a war chest of $20 million. (McBride must replenish a bankroll that has dwindled to $60,000.) The president has visited the state 10 times and, GOP sources say, is penciled in for at least three more trips between now and November. ("He'll work the precincts if he has to," said one consultant with strong Florida ties. …