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Young 'George P.' raises passion from party podium

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA - George P. Bush, the new hunk in town whose uncle happens to be running for president, is speaking from a stage in a crowded banquet hall, making Republicans wild with his Latino good looks and smooth campaign pitch. As he is whisked like a rock star to a back-door exit, a matron rushes him.

"Real quick! Can I give you a lei?" screams Kathi Thomason, a 48-year-old accountant from Hawaii, throwing a necklace of purple orchids toward him. "Please!"

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If the Republican Party wants to put the passion in compassionate conservatism, it may have found the right man. At just 24 years old, George P. Bush - known in these parts as "George P." - is the one the party hopes will drive youngsters into its ranks. He says he represents a GOP that values public service, ethnic diversity and youthful optimism.

What's more, some say, he makes the party a lot cuter.

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"He's got the looks, he's got the body, he's got the brains, he's got the soul," says Alina Garcia, who's chaperoning two dozen Latino youngsters from Miami at the convention. "He's got it all."

The Republican convention is doubling as a dress rehearsal for a man Republicans talk about as an up-and-coming heir to the Bush legacy. At the very least, the son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Mexican-born wife, Columba - and the grandson of former President George Bush and nephew of George W. Bush - is emerging here as the spokesmodel for the party's next generation.

On the convention floor yesterday afternoon, just before Gloria Estefan's hit version of "Turn the Beat Around" starts thumping across the hall, he expounds on the theme of youth activism.

"This is the message of the Republican Party - are you guys with it?" he says, adding, "I'm proud to be a Republican - I know you are!"

Several teen-age girls stare at him dreamily.

Tomorrow night, Bush will address a packed hall before his uncle accepts the nomination in what promises to be the convention's biggest night on television. George P. has been front and center all week - including today, when he will lead a group of Latinos in a welcoming ceremony for his uncle from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous in the movie "Rocky."

The speech tomorrow won't be the first time the cameras have landed on the candidate's nephew. At the 1992 Republican convention, George P., then 16, gave a brief but memorable speech for his grandfather, screaming "Viva Bush" at the end even though, he says, campaign advisers told him not to.

Bush entered the public consciousness as one of "the little brown ones" - the term his grandfather once used to describe Bush and his two younger siblings in introducing them to Ronald Reagan. Now, that Latino background is but one of his appeals as the campaign tries to capitalize on him in campaign stops and TV ads.

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The other is his youth. In his crisp suits and stylish, square-toed shoes, Bush calls his young audiences "you guys" and tells them to "believe in yourselves." He quotes Plato but keeps the events more like pep rallies. For all the energy he puts into his uncle's campaign, he says his greater goal is to woo a new generation of Republicans.

"I don't need to sell you guys on the reasons why my uncle should be the next president of the United States," he tells a gathering of College Republicans at Finnigan's Wake, an Irish pub here. "What I do need to sell you guys on is to go to your communities, return to your colleges and universities and make that difference."

Inside the bar, Bush is treated like a favorite frat buddy ("I'd love to play 18 holes with him," says Chris Tiedeman, the group's 24-year-old treasurer). The activist students - one is handing out his business card even though he doesn't have a job yet and is working the room with a two-handed grip-and-hold handshake - regard young conservatives like Bush as the party's future.

"He has the personality - it's like he's a Republican Kennedy," says Tiedeman. "He's the perfect person to get young people involved."

Nearby, Rep. John R. Kasich, the retiring Ohio Republican whom the students were honoring with their annual Lee Atwater Award, seemed charmed by Bush.

"He's red hot," Kasich tells the students. "This guy's got an incredible future."

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Bush is warming to the attention. "I'm loving being a part of this convention - this is exciting," he says, posing for pictures with students in the bar. As for the ardor of his fans, he says, "It sure is strange. I'm really not used to this."

Bush's grandfather and other relatives now call him "Ricky" - as in Ricky Martin, the Latino heartthrob -- and People magazine recently named him the country's fourth-most eligible bachelor.

Bush attended exclusive Gulliver Prep high school in Pine Crest, Fla., and graduated from Rice University in 1998. A history major, Bush taught the subject to high school freshmen after college in a struggling neighborhood near Miami. This month, he will begin law school at the University of Texas.

Some of those more resistant to his charms say they wonder what exactly the guy has to offer beyond youth and good looks.

"He's too young to know what he's doing," says John Lydon, formerly known as Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the British punk rock band the Sex Pistols. Lydon, a campaign-trail interviewer for the cable channel VH1, watches Bush from the sidelines at one of his many appearances. "What is he doing?"

As with most of Bush's appearances, this one with the College Republicans doesn't last long. Bush promises the students that he'll "be in touch, talk, chase some ideas around." But not now. "If there's one thing my grandmother told me," he says, "it's to keep my remarks as short as possible and not to be a showoff like other members of my family."

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As he hurries toward the door, Bush sounds a little wistful. "I wish I could have a beer with you guys," he says.

Bush's business in the campaign largely revolves around Latino voters. The Catholic, half-Mexican Bush stars in four Spanish-language television commercials, along with four in English, all geared toward a Latino audience. The ads do not dwell on so-called Latino issues, such as increased aid to poor urban communities, but rather stick to non-controversial themes like patriotism.

"I'm a young Latino in the U.S., in many ways like any other American," Bush says in one ad.

Campaign advisers see Bush, who speaks flawless Spanish, as a key to capturing the traditionally Democratic minority vote over time. Bush, who marched for his uncle in New York's Puerto Rican Day parade, is a regular in Spanish-language newscasts in the United States.

"I was amazed at how quickly he was able to relate the message to the camera - as if he were talking one on one to a best friend or maybe a newfound friend," says Lionel Sosa, a Texas consultant for the Bush campaign who created the Bush ads. "He's just a natural. One in a thousand times you will find a person who, from the first time you click on the camera, only needs one take. That's him."

Bush still tries to go about the business of being an ordinary 20-something. He wants to travel the world but is clearly taking to the campaign trail. He just finished three weeks on the road for his uncle.

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As for his own political future, Bush offers a megawatt smile but no plans.

"I'm 24," he says. "I'm still figuring things out."


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