Jeb Bush Steers Former Advisers Toward Romney

Friday, February 16th 2007, 10:16 pm
By: News On 6

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Former Gov. Jeb Bush has no plans to get publicly involved in the Republican presidential primary. Behind the scenes, though, he is steering some of his closest advisers Mitt Romney's way.

And once directed toward the former Massachusetts governor, many are being sold on the underdog candidate, including Bush's hand-picked state party chairman, his former campaign manager and Toni Jennings, the woman Bush chose as his lieutenant governor.

``Gov. Bush said, 'Before you commit, I want you to meet Mitt Romney. He is the kind of guy you will like no matter what,''' Jennings said. ``The governor was very candid about the fact that he really liked this guy.''

Jennings and a who's who of Florida politicos are now in the Romney camp, an edge they hope will help their candidate overcome a lack of name recognition in the state.

On Friday, Romney held private meetings in Jacksonville to help build his team before appearing at a town hall meeting in central Florida at The Villages, a huge retirement community that's a must-stop for politicians campaigning in the state.

More than 750 people turned out for the event, some arriving 90 minutes early and others forced to sit in an overflow room and watch Romney on television. He received cheers when he backed President Bush's plans for Iraq and called for a secure border with Mexico, then won over the crowd when he quickly responded to criticism of his Mormon faith.

A man ended a rambling five-minute statement by telling Romney: ``You, sir, are a pretender. You don't know the Lord. You are a Mormon.''

After raucous boos silenced the man, Romney said: ``I am convinced the nation does need to have people of different faiths. And we need to have a person of faith leading the country.'' People leaped to their feet, cheered and whistled.

After the event, retiree Bernhard Guenther said he had been leaning toward supporting Romney and was now convinced he would make a strong president.

``I like him because of his business experience. It's something this country needs. We need an executive, someone who can make tough decisions, take action and get things done,'' Guenther said. ``He's the best candidate that the Republican Party has.''

Last fall, Romney campaigned with Bush to help Florida candidates. As head of the Republican Governors Association, he also brought a $1 million check to the state Republican Party. While the GOP suffered major gubernatorial losses elsewhere, Florida was a bright spot with the election of Republican Charlie Crist.

Romney's lack of name recognition isn't daunting, said Sally Bradshaw, a former Bush campaign manager and chief of staff who talked with the Rudy Giuliani and John McCain campaigns before Bush told her to meet Romney.

``We are fully committed to putting the resources here so people can get an up-close look at Mitt Romney,'' Bradshaw said.

Former state Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, who was picked by Bush to lead the party after the governor took office in 1999, said had he never met Romney until he began setting up his presidential campaign.

``To me it was a fairly easy decision,'' said Cardenas, who also spoke with Bush before choosing to support Romney. ``I found him to be a superior candidate in all respects, both as in style and substance.''