June 8, 1998 12:01 AM EDT

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Jeb Bush has always been the most unusual of the Bush kids. Yes, he had the Greenwich pedigree and the summers in Kennebunkport. But while still in high school, he went to Mexico and came back in love with a Mexican girl named Columba. He married her, and the Bush Episcopalians, with their love of cold Maine waters, suddenly had a warm Catholic woman for a daughter-in-law. Then Jeb left Houston, the city he grew up in, and put down roots in the Latino culture of Miami, where his family had little sway. He lost his first race for Governor of Florida in 1994 by fewer than 2 percentage points, and the finish was not pretty.

Bush had been so obsessed with the campaign that he almost lost his family too. Which is why, to those watching the 45-year-old second son of the former President become the front runner in this year’s gubernatorial race, Bush seems so different, so much softer around the edges. To help save his family, Bush recently made perhaps the ultimate leap for the son of the ultimate Wasp: he converted to Catholicism. It wasn’t entirely an alien experience. Bush has been accompanying his wife to church off and on since their 1974 marriage, and many observers had erroneously concluded that he had already adopted her religion. But it happened only three years ago, and while some critics may say this was good timing in a state with a 13% Hispanic population, Bush insists that the conversion came out of his family crisis. “I vowed to myself after the election that I would convert. It turned out to be a pretty therapeutic thing… Had I won, I would have been up in a cocoon in Tallahassee and protected… I’m convinced that I’m better off for not having won.”

By the end of his unsuccessful 1994 campaign, with its 16-hour days, Bush says, he was estranged from his wife and children, and one of them was having serious problems, which Bush declines to describe. “[The campaign] took a toll on my family life, and it was painful to go through that,” he says. “I had got so immersed that while I was still connected to my family on one level, I left them behind. So when I came back to the real world, there were some problems I began to see… That hardship was devastating.”

Starting in November 1994, two weeks after his bitter defeat, he attended classes under the Roman Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He went once a week for five months to Columba’s church, the Epiphany Catholic Church in Miami, and was received into the faith at Easter 1995. “I had just got my butt whupped in the election, and these were real people, and it was so much fun to talk about normal things and to be treated as just a normal, ordinary person.” He also invested time in restoring his relationships. “For a two-year period, I dealt significantly with [them], and that has changed my life in a lot of ways.” His daughter Nicole, 20, is living at the Bush home in Miami and attending community college; his son George P., 22, just graduated from Rice University and is returning home to teach in an inner-city school. A third child, Jeb Jr., 14, is in junior high school. His daughter and her mother turn up on the campaign trail once in a while.

That’s where Bush the politician seems transformed. The millionaire real estate mogul who once described himself as a “head-banging conservative” is suddenly taking his campaign into places where few Florida Republicans have gone before–black churches and schools, Hispanic neighborhoods, condo units full of elderly, staunchly Democratic Jews, and rural counties on the Georgia border, where Republicans are still scarce. In the last go-around, his speeches were about building prisons and boot camps, making abortion illegal, downsizing government and putting welfare moms back to work. This time he talks about promoting economic growth in poor neighborhoods, ways to encourage adoption, privatizing parts of government, and compassion. “Compassion must mean suffering with others and acting on the consciousness of your suffering with the people who are really in need,” he says.

Eight months ago, Bush began surging ahead in the polls, and now he leads his likely opponent, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kenneth (“Buddy”) MacKay, by 18 points. The numbers show that Bush’s campaigning in the black community has helped fuel his ascent. In the 1994 gubernatorial election, he received only 4% of the black vote. Polls currently show him at 17% and rising, and a growing number of the state’s black leaders are supporting him in part because, borrowing a tactic from brother George, Governor of Texas, he has made a point of meeting with all of them one on one.

Bush has invested more than campaign time in black neighborhoods. In 1996, with T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, he set up one of the state’s first charter schools in Liberty City. The elementary school, entering its second year, is the centerpiece of Bush’s sweeping education proposals for the state. “I think his experiences with Liberty City really shaped his thinking,” says Beryl Roberts-Burke, head of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators. Says Bush: “I would walk into the class, and a kid would come up to me and touch my skin or feel my hair, and it happened every day I was there. They had not touched a white person or felt their hair. This just blew me away. What kind of a place do we live in where a six-year-old child hasn’t touched a white person before?”

Education has become the cornerstone of Bush’s campaign. In 1994 he called for abolishing the state board of education and wiping out tenure for teachers. This time, he advocates raising public school standards and giving more power to educators to make important decisions about what happens in the classroom. More in line with his old-style conservatism, he favors a voucher plan that would help children attending failing public schools to attend private ones.

But critics point out that Bush’s campaign proposals seem to have a pie-in-the-sky quality. He cites Sarasota County’s child-welfare program as an example of success in privatizing government. His critics question whether it makes sense to put the complex social needs of the elderly and of juvenile delinquents into the hands of private companies. MacKay is already attacking him for his support of vouchers as a first step toward dismantling public education. And Bush will have to answer questions about his controversial record as a businessman. For instance, he has been embroiled in a lawsuit charging that, as a director of Safecard Services, a credit-card-services company, he was responsible for false statements about the firm’s earnings. Its stock went into a free fall soon after he joined the board in 1995, and while Bush was not the cause of the problems, critics have pointed to this and earlier episodes as examples of his careless judgment. In the ads Governor Lawton Chiles ran against Bush four years ago, the line was simply, “We just can’t trust Jeb Bush with our future.”

But in a poor, drug-infested section of Palmetto these days, some people are willing to try. Bush’s red Chevy Blazer pulls into the parking lot of a dingy Affiliated Food Store, and he jumps out in his gray suit and starched shirt. He approaches half a dozen black men on the store’s porch, then dives into the dim interior looking for more people. “I hope you’ll vote for me,” he says, inclining his rangy, 6-ft. 4-in. frame toward his listeners, managing, like his mother Barbara, whom he resembles, to be both gentle and intense at the same time. “I just wanted to make sure that I asked you for your vote this time.”

A minute later, two police cruisers come to a skidding halt in front of the store. The officers were expecting Bush at a nearby school and were worried when he didn’t show up. “This is a prime crack-cocaine area,” says one. “We were just a little concerned.” But Bush and his porchmates are doubled over in laughter. The cop just scratches his head.

–With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington

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