MIAMI — When Jeb Bush left office four years ago, his public appearances were as scarce as bi-partisan man hugs.
He didn't want to upstage his successor in the governor's mansion nor his brother in the White House. Instead, he quietly cashed in by joining corporate boards and an elite speakers bureau, penned policy essays and gave infrequent interviews to conservative media.
But in recent months, as the Republican Party of Florida has grappled with a leadership vacuum, Bush's political profile has grown as fast as the national deficit.
He headlined a fundraiser for Bill McCollum's gubernatorial campaign, starred in a YouTube video touting Jeff Atwater's campaign for state chief financial officer and helped install state Sen. John Thrasher as the state party's heir apparent -- all the while looming on the sidelines of the fierce Republican Senate primary between Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio.
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The capper came Thursday when, at the top of the 7 o'clock hour, right after Vice President Joe Biden, Bush made a rare network television appearance on NBC's Today Show. The intensely private Bush's interview with the overly familiar Matt Lauer rattled Florida political circles.
Was this the beginning of a Jeb juggernaut that would culminate in a 2012 presidential bid?
``My wife called me immediately and said he looked presidential,'' said Thrasher, who as the former House speaker helped Bush lay down his agenda. ``I said, `Who knows? We'll see.' I'm ready to go to Iowa any time he's ready.''
Bush's comments about Crist's support for President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan got the most attention, but his call for Democrats and Republicans to work together was the biggest clue to his national ambitions.
``I think that leaders on both sides of the aisle need to figure out where there is common ground and at least focus on that,'' he said. ``It's one thing to give a good speech. The other thing is to invite people that don't agree exactly with your point of view to build consensus.''
This from the governor who presided over some of Florida's most hyper-partisan battles of the last decade? Who helped declare his brother the winner of the 2000 presidential recount, threw out affirmative action with the ``One Florida'' program, made the FCAT the end-all be-all of the public schools and insisted on getting in between brain-damaged Terri Schiavo and her husband?
But Bush's front-page days are long gone. Lady Gaga could learn a thing or two from the ex-governor, who has stayed relevant without killing us with overexposure. He picks and chooses candidates to support and the causes that matter most to him. He recently made a rare appearance in the Capitol to promote education reforms and helped launch a national group to elect Republican state lawmakers.
Though he hasn't given an endorsement, Bush has been an undeniable presence in the Crist-Rubio race. Consider: His well-placed compliments for Rubio and subtle digs at Crist. The involvement of his family's longtime fundraiser, Ann Herberger, in the Rubio campaign. The reception co-hosted by sons George P. and Jeb Jr. that raised $100,000 for Rubio.
If the race goes down to the wire, or if Crist launches a full-scale attack against Rubio, some Republicans predict Bush will speak out.
``If Jeb is going to publicly support Marco, it's better to keep the suspense building and do it closer to the election when voters are paying attention,'' said Rubio supporter Ana Navarro. ``Jeb Bush stumping through Florida for a Republican candidate makes a difference. Jeb Bush knows that. Marco Rubio knows that. And I suspect Charlie Crist fears that.''