Inside the numbers: W in Florida

Posted: Jun 10, 2003 12:00 AM

The road to the White House becomes an eight-lane interstate when it reaches the state of Florida. Following the 2000 election controversy, the state has emerged as the most storied microcosm of America, and the crown jewel of presidential electoral politics.

The latest InsiderAdvantage poll, conducted just last week, shows that while President George W. Bush earns an overwhelming approval rating of 64 percent in the Sunshine State, his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, gets the thumbs up from 55 percent of Floridians. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percent.

The president's strong rating is no real surprise, especially considering the recent glimmers of hope for widespread economic improvement. More interesting is the popularity of brother Jeb, who -- like many governors throughout the nation -- continues to have to deal with the fallout of a sour economy not of his or his brother's making. To Jeb's credit, he is getting recognition among his state's voters for building a bona fide foundation for economic growth. That's no easy task in such a politically explosive state.

Like other states, Florida has been hit hard by declining state revenues. Even as Gov. Bush moved swiftly to head off a state financial crisis -- making necessary budget adjustments in the wake of 9-11 -- he also kept a weather eye on a parallel necessity: new economic growth. This is noteworthy because many public officials in similar circumstances have chosen to rely almost exclusively on cutting services and raising taxes.

While that approach is often unavoidable, Gov. Bush's approach has been far more sophisticated. Bush, who understands the value of his state's proximity to Central and South America, has fixed his gaze southward to trigger economic development. He recently attended the signing in Miami of an historic trade agreement between Chile and the United States. The pact is a doubly smart move for Florida, since the state is Chile's leading U.S. trade partner.

In large part thanks to Bush's initiatives, Florida in April continued to lead all other states in job creation. Plus, Florida's unemployment rate has been lower than the national average since March 2002. This is no small feat for a state that derives much of its economic might from the same tourism industry that was nearly destroyed after the Attack on America.

As for President Bush, his extraordinarily high approval rating in Florida is early bad news for the current pack of relatively weak Democrats who are flailing about in obscure forums and debates in places such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. They have to worry that America's overall unemployment will decline from its current 6 percent-plus to Florida's more palatable 5.3 percent. And what if other states get as aggressive with foreign trade as Florida and Jeb Bush have done? What would a Democratic nominee have to run on next summer and fall? Not much.

Of course, risks remain for all Bushes and all office-seeking Republicans in 2004. Political success often breeds arrogance, and arrogance can kill a politician. But the two Bush brothers seem to be keeping their feet on the ground. They keep pushing their agendas while also staying mindful that, in politics, today's hero can be tomorrow's goat; yesterday's friend can be today's enemy.

Another danger is the possibility that the economy will never fully recover. Absent any new wars or terrorist attacks that cause Americans to close ranks around current leaders, an economic slowdown could slow down the president's popularity, too. But even if this happened, the Democrats likely would need a more moderate candidate than they now have in order to have a real chance to beat President Bush.

Right now, both events and polling numbers are trending well for George and Jeb. If the song remains the same for another year or so, no one will be eagerly waiting to count presidential ballots in Florida. Instead, America will see the crown jewel of Florida placed safely in the GOP column as soon as the polls close.