Jeb Bush Gubernatorial Race Tightens

Gov. Jeb Bush welcomed his brother to Florida on Thursday, seeking to bolster his re-election bid on a day when his daughter was sentenced to jail for violating her drug rehab program.

President Bush touted the importance of accountability in public education, highlighting a key debate in the governor's race against Democrat Bill McBride.

"If you teach a child to read, you are teaching a skill, not teaching the test," President Bush said. "Nobody should allow an excuse, in my judgment, across America to undermine accountability.

"It does these children a disservice to undermine the accountability system. Otherwise, you just shuffle kids through and that's unacceptable in America," Bush said in a reference to his brother's accountability system under the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The governor has defended the test as a way to measure the progress of children and bring accountability to schools. McBride has called the FCAT "high-stakes testing" that has hurt public education and has opposed the system of labeling schools with letter grades.

McBride campaign spokesman Alan Stonecipher said: "It's obvious that the occasion for this visit is to help Governor Bush and the venue and the subject matter was chosen to help Governor Bush on the issue on which he is most vulnerable, which is public education."

The president was helping raise $1 million for the state Republican Party, a contribution that would aid his brother during the final three weeks of the race.

The presidential visit coincided with news that the governor's 25-year-old daughter, Noelle Bush, would serve 10 days in jail after being accused of having crack cocaine in her shoe while in drug rehab.

During an earlier stop in St. Petersburg, Bush said he did not attend the hearing because he did not want to bring more media attention to his daughter's case. He declined to say whether he would visit Noelle in jail.

"I have a job to do and I intend to do my job," Bush said. "But that doesn't mean that I don't think about my daughter every minute of every day."

He added: "I pray every day with my wife that a light goes off inside of her and that she realizes that she needs to make better choices in her life."

The governor did not speak with reporters during the campaign events in central Florida with the president.

The Bush brothers visited Read-Pattillo Elementary School in New Smyrna Beach, which the president noted had improved during his brother's administration.

"I know his heart. I know his strength of conviction and I know his vision, a clear vision for a better day," President Bush said.

The president has generated $7 million in a series of Florida fund-raisers this year to benefit his brother. He made his 11th visit as president to Florida, where he narrowly earned election following a 36-day recount in 2000.

The fund-raiser, which was closed to the news media, was held at the Daytona Beach home of Lesa and Bruce Kennedy. Lesa Kennedy is the daughter of Bill France Jr., chairman of the International Speedway Corporation and the granddaughter of the late "Big Bill" France Sr., the founder of NASCAR.

Polls indicate a competitive race, with Gov. Bush in a statistical dead heat with McBride. Democrats nationally are targeting the race because it could hurt the president's re-election bid in 2004 while avenging the voting fiasco in November 2000 that vaulted Bush to the White House.

McBride, meanwhile, was attending a Washington fund-raiser at the home of Elizabeth Bagley, former ambassador to Portugal under President Clinton, and her husband, Smith Bagley, an heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune.

The Bagleys have been active in efforts to normalize relations between the United States and communist Cuba and held a dinner party two years ago for Elian Gonzalez and his father while they awaited their return to Cuba.

McBride officials said the Tampa lawyer opposes any relaxation of the Cuban embargo until there is a guarantee of human rights and steps are taken toward democracy.

"Just because you know somebody or meet somebody or go to their dinner or house doesn't mean you hold the same views," Stonecipher said. He noted that Bush was endorsed by Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, a Democrat, who recently traveled to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro.

The Bush campaign renewed calls for McBride to repudiate comments made by a Miami minister comparing the Bush family with Usama bin Laden and neo-Nazis. The remarks were made before a recent radio interview with McBride.

Jewish organizations joined in the criticism of Bishop Victor Curry. Art Teitelbaum of the Anti-Defamation League called on Curry to apologize for his comments.

Curry told The Miami Herald that he has made similar comments since the disputed 2000 election.

"I don't apologize for what I said," Curry said. "These are my opinions, and I believe it's the truth. But you can't make Mr. McBride look bad for something I said."