Posted: Jan 18, 2005 12:00 AM

In last week's column, it was Newt Gingrich for president in 2008. This week brings us to consideration of another name that deserves serious consideration -- a name that now may be viewed as just as much a long shot as Gingrich, although for different reasons.
That name is Jeb Bush. He says, emphatically, he will not run. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't.

 First, a bit of follow-up. I met with Newt Gingrich late last week. He continued to stick to his story that he's really just pushing the fresh policy ideas in his new book. Even so, it was clear that he is preparing to enter the next and most amazing stage of his meteoric public career. Let's put it this way: Don't be shocked to see him vacationing in New Hampshire and signing lots of books in Iowa.

 Gingrich is the textbook case of a potential presidential contender whom the politically naive may discount as a candidate because they think he can't restyle his old image. They're wrong. Now let's consider another potential Republican candidate who pundits incorrectly believe could never win because of the simple fact of his family ties. That man is Gov. Bush.

 Many so-called political experts are often way off when it comes to deciding this far out who can win the White House. They would have us believe a Jeb Bush candidacy in 2008 would be doomed supposedly because Americans would never elect three presidents from the same family. How interesting. Had the late Robert Kennedy lived and been elected president in 1968, there is little doubt that, in good time, brother Teddy would have seemed the next popular choice for Democrats entranced by the Kennedy mystique.

 In the case of Gov. Bush, there is substance behind the notion that he could -- even should -- be elected to succeed George W. Bush. With all deference to Jeb's dad, George H.W. Bush -- whom I passionately supported in '88 and in '92 -- and to his brother, the current president, it's long been my contention that Jeb is the most articulate and the most natural political leader hanging on the family tree.

 Moreover, our InsiderAdvantage surveys in Florida have consistently shown Bush to have strong approval ratings. The most recent of these surveys found him well above 60 percent approval. That's no mean feat in this divided and tumultuous political era. Some of his popularity may be attributed to his household last name. But in a state as politically diverse as Florida, there's got to be more to it. Could it be because he's been a great governor? Not just good, or even very good. Great. Here are some reasons why:

 Consider that Florida doesn't have the fiscal luxury of a state income tax. Now realize the impact that 9/11 had on the state's No. 1 industry, tourism, and its ability to generate state revenue through sales and other taxes.

 Now imagine meeting the diverse needs of a huge state with a large senior population and a multitude of urban areas, which bring with them many of the social and other problems attendant to tough life in the city.

 Somehow through all this, Jeb Bush has managed to steer his state through rocky financial times, instilling a confidence that Florida can face up to virtually any challenge.

 Bush accomplished this in part by embracing the Reagan economic philosophy. Florida eliminated some $6 billion dollars in taxes on businesses and those who invest in the state's economy. The result is a rebounding jobs market that is back to pre-9/11 levels, and boosted by a continuing expansion in economic sectors like construction and development. In fact, Wall Street has just upgraded Florida's credit rating for the first time in 30 years.

 Second, Gov. Bush deep-sixed the good-ole-boy system of state government, a relic of Florida's old days of system-abusing, "hail-fellow-well-met" Democrats. He passed legislation that transformed Florida's civil service system into one that is merit-based, not tenure-controlled. Many positions in state government that were once private political fiefdoms are now accountable to the state's chief executive. That includes Florida's head of public education, once elected, now appointed by the governor. Bush even dispensed with the Board of Regents -- almost universally a private little kingdom with too many kings -- instead of allowing state universities to continue serving as their own governing bodies.

 And speaking of education: Bush has spearheaded the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT), which has set real standards for public schools. The governor has held those schools accountable for their test results. It was controversial with the state's teachers union, but it has proven the catalyst for real improvement in public schools.

 Now throw this in the mix: While some Republican leaders talk about privatization of government services, Bush has set in motion a whirlwind series of initiatives to privatize everything from prisons to mental health facilities. Jeb Bush is a true conservative with a progressive bent.

 All of the above said, it now looks like Bush wants his name taken out of consideration for the presidency in 2008. But just as the concept of Newt making a big comeback isn't so far-fetched, a Jeb Bush run makes equally good sense. In the end, both men must make their own decisions. But it's great to see the GOP with leaders who are bright, widely known and able to turn rhetoric into government policy -- leaders capable of, well, leading.