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Brother Jeb rising influence in Florida

Miami, Oct. 30: President Bush, borrowing a bit of biblically styled phrasing, calls Florida's governor 'Brother Jeb.'

The brothers ' Jeb, the younger one, and George W. ' have been everywhere in Florida together the past few months. They've handed out bottled water in hurricane-battered towns and roused crowds side-by-side at campaign rallies.

Jeb Bush's political powers, his eloquence and his gifts as a strategist are considered major assets to his brother's campaign, by the governor's detractors and fans alike. One long-time Florida Democratic operative says he is 'as smart as Karl Rove,' the President's much-praised strategist. But it is Jeb Bush's influence over the electoral process in this crucial state that can inspire awe and rage.

This year, he has far more say over how the presidential election in Florida will be conducted than he did in 2000. He has been smack in the middle of a gaggle of election controversies over the past year: from flawed voter lists and manual recount battles to tussles over electronic voting machines.

This fact has made the governor the object of intense criticism from voter-advocacy groups, who have accused him of manipulating the process through Florida secretary of state Glenda Hood, his appointee.

'He has a penchant for mythmaking about the state of the electoral process in Florida, rather than telling the truth,' said Bobbie Brinegar, president of the Miami-Dade county league of women voters. 'It's really important to eliminate the partisan administration of the electoral process in Florida.'

But the powers Jeb Bush has over the electoral process are exactly what Florida asked for. Florida used to elect its secretaries of state ' Katherine Harris was the last of the elected secretaries. Harris was one of the central figures in the 2000 election tempest, using her authority to limit the time counties had to recount ballots and overseeing the initial decisions over the eligibility of voters before the election.

In 1998, when Jeb Bush won his first term as governor, the state also approved a raft of constitutional amendments, including one that changed the job of secretary of state from an elected to an appointed position effective in 2003, giving the governor a huge role in the election process.

Only five of the 39 secretaries of the state who oversee elections are appointed. The change to an appointed position in Florida had bipartisan support.

At times, the 2004 election has shaped up as a war between Jeb Bush and the election reform groups as much as it has been a war between the President and Senator John F. Kerry. Bush and Hood refused requests to audit voting machines during the August 31 primary. They also won court cases against groups that wanted to require paper trails for electronic voting machines and to allow manual recounts of electronically cast votes.

The governor and the secretary of state have sparred along the way with the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and, most recently, with former President Jimmy Carter. Bush dropped any semblance of the usual diplomatic niceties extended to former Presidents when he referred to Carter, a Democrat, as 'that guy' in a sharp retort after Carter wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that questioned whether Florida could hold a fair election and that said Jeb Bush 'has taken no steps to correct' election problems that had disenfranchised African Americans.

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