Bush family hedges its bets for 2008

George’s and Jeb’s followers are lining up against each other in the 2008 presidential election.

Many prominent GOP operatives close to President Bush have joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) while a majority of those close to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) are lining up behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R).

It is clear that the Bush family is hedging its 2008 bets, said one political scientist.  Or the divergence could signal a schism between the two brothers’ politics. Or, as one fundraiser close to the Bush family argued, it may just be happenstance. 

McCain’s campaign has signed the lion’s share of the best known lieutenants of the president’s election campaigns. Terry Nelson, Mark McKinnon, and Steve Schmidt, who worked on Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, now serve McCain. Nelson served as Bush’s political director, McKinnon and Schmidt handled media strategy. Matt David, who handled rapid response, also works for McCain. 

Brian Jones and Danny Diaz worked for the president as media specialists for the Republican National Committee (RNC). They are also on McCain’s team.

While Romney has recruited veteran talent from DC’s Republican circles, he has drawn fewer high-profile operatives who worked for the president. Romney has hired two well-known Bush-2004 operatives: Matt Rhoades, who served as research director, and Kevin Madden, who worked with the press.

Ben Ginsberg, Bush-2004’s legal counsel, and Bob Perry, a Texas homebuilder who funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and helped sink Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 challenge, also support Romney.

Fifty-five of the president’s biggest fundraisers — those who have reached “Ranger” and “Pioneer” rank — are backing McCain. (Rangers raise $200,000 or more while pioneers raise half that.) Thirty-one major Bush fundraisers are in Romney’s camp.

But the trend of Bush allies lopsidedly favoring McCain over Romney flips in Florida, where Jeb Bush has governed for most of the past decade.

“Jeb Bush may be putting together the backup team,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Should McCain falter and prove not very appetizing, they’ve designated his successor.”

Baker said Romney “represents the fallback position of the Bush White House without having the Washington Bush supporters withdraw their support of McCain.”

“It’s betting on two horses,” said Baker of the Bush family’s apparent hedging strategy. “It seems to me an effort to diversify their portfolio.”

Much of Jeb’s inner circle has picked Romney. The list includes Sally Bradshaw, who served as Gov. Bush’s campaign manager in 1994 and 1998 and as his first gubernatorial chief of staff; Ann Herberger, who was the governor’s campaign finance director; and Mandy Fletcher, who recently headed Bush’s think tank, Foundation for Florida’s Future, and worked on his reelection. In addition, Alan Philp, Bush’s former policy director, is coordinating policy and issues for Romney.

Jeb Bush’s former lieutenant governor Toni Jennings, Al Cardenas, who served as Florida GOP chairman under Jeb, David Griffin, who headed Jeb’s second -term transition office and was the Florida Lottery Secretary, Sherri McVay, executive director of Jeb’s statewide advocacy council, and Kristy Campbell, the former governor’s press secretary, are all playing roles in Romney’s campaign.

Current and former state legislators who worked closely with Jeb are also backing Romney — former Florida House Speakers Allan Bense and John Thrasher, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), state Rep. Dennis Baxley, state Rep. Jennifer Carroll, and state Rep. Anitere Flores. Bense, Thrasher, and Feeney held the senior posts in the state House while Jeb was governor.
“You couldn’t say all of Jeb’s friends are with Romney but you could say the lion’s share of his A team is with Romney,” said Feeney, who was Bush’s running mate during his unsuccessful 1994 gubernatorial bid.

Baxley, Speaker Pro-Tempore of the statehouse, said Bush has probably recommended his senior staff and supporters to Romney’s campaign.

“I would suspect that people like Sally don’t go to work for anybody and are very interested in what the governor thinks about Romney,” he said, in reference to Bush’s senior political adviser Sally Bradshaw.

McCain also has supporters from Jeb’s inner circle, but fewer; Kathleen Shanahan, Bush’s chief of staff from 2001 to 2003, Phil Handy, whom Bush appointed to the state’s Education and Governance Reorganization Task Force, Corey Tilley, who served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff, and Jim Smith, whom Jeb Bush appointed as secretary of state. Other McCain supporters include Hayden Dempsey, who served as Jeb’s deputy general counsel, Mac Stipanovich, senior adviser on the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, and Tony Villamil, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors of Florida under Jeb.

But even a member of the House Florida delegation who has endorsed McCain agreed that most of Jeb’s closest supporters have gone to Romney.

“Jeb Bush was a very successful governor and Mit Romney was a successful governor — both running on a conservative platform so it would be logical that [Jeb] Bush followers would support Romney,” said Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.).

Keller said he is supporting McCain because the senator is a “straight talker” and a better match against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the 2008 Democratic presidential frontrunner.

Cardenas, the former state GOP chairman, said a majority of Jeb Bush’s state fundraising network has sided with Romney.

“I think we’ve announced a list of 80 names of major contributors in Florida who have signed up with the Romney for president effort,” said Cardenas, a member of Romney’s Florida Steering Committee. “It’s significantly more than half our major donors.”

See chart