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A Kinder, Gentler Jeb Bush A Kinder, Gentler Jeb Bush

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A Kinder, Gentler Jeb Bush

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waves as he is introduced to the crowd during inauguration ceremonies for Republican Rick Scott Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 outside the Old Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.  (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Former Gov. Jeb Bush has been sounding downright squishy lately, decrying partisan backbiting and waxing poetic about compromise.

He said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Ronald Reagan would have a "hard time'' fitting into today's Republican Party because they were willing to seek consensus with Democrats. He told a congressional committee that he never signed anti-tax crusader Grover's Norquist's pledge because you don't "oursource your principles and convictions to other people.'' He called lamented "hyperpartisan'' politicians in Washington and called the GOP "shortsighted.''

To the Florida Democrats who clashed with him repeatedly when he served from 1998 to 2006, this is not the Jeb Bush they knew and frequently did not love.

One lawmaker dubbed him "King Jeb'' for his my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing while brandishing strong Republican majorities in both legislative chambers. He tied public school funding to standardized tests, launched a private school voucher program. banned affirmative action in state contracts and university admissions, and championed prolonging the life of a severely brain-damaged woman.

Dan Gelber, who served as the Democratic leader in the Florida House under Bush and disagreed with him fiercely on all of the aforementioned issues, said he has been "surprised'' by Bush's conciliatory tone of late.

"When Jeb Bush is saying it's gotten hyperpartisan, that's really something. It shows you how far the needle has moved,'' Gelber quipped. "He was quite a partisan guy....Payback was also part of his agenda, no question. He took care of his friends and went after his enemies.''

But Gelber said Bush's hardline positions were always based in policy, not in political scorekeeping. That makes him different than some of the controversial conservatives leading in Washington and in state capitals across the country, Gelber said, including Rick Scott in Florida and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

"We were prepared to do battle with Jeb every day but it was over ideas,'' Gelber said. "The difference with these guys today is that it's about electoral politics, so anything the other guy says is bad.''

Gelber added, "Jeb's tone has surprised me lately, but it doesn't surprise me that he would be frustrated by this reflexive ideology that has become the dominant feature of his party.''

Perhaps it takes leaving office to reveal a politician's softer side. Bush has repeatedly resisted pleas to run for president and insisted he won't be vice president, either. But he clearly relishes his role as a GOP elder and wants to be a part of the national conversation, and for that his admirers are grateful.

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