Jeb Bush will have to walk a thin line when he heads to Athens on Saturday to campaign before the annual gridiron matchup between Georgia and South Carolina. And just who the former Florida governor will root for may be one of the tougher questions he gets.
Will he don the red and black of the Georgia faithful? Will he sport a shiny visor, the favored headgear of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier? Or will he fall somewhere in between, perhaps favoring a nice neutral shade of gray?
South Carolina is an early-voting state that Bush has crisscrossed trying to curry favor. But he’s also visited Georgia a half-dozen or so times in the past year — downing a Frosted Orange at the Varsity and hanging out with Ludacris under the Gold Dome — ahead of this state’s March 1 primary.
It’s dicey territory. Georgia dominates the overall matchup, but the Bulldogs have lost four of the past five games, including last year’s heart-wrenching defeat in soggy Columbia. That puts an edge on this year’s game.
Many Georgia politicos had some tongue-in-cheek advice for the Republican. GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney’s was the most pointed:
“Winners wear red and black. Losers wear Steve Spurrier visors. Dress like a winner.”
Bush, a University of Texas graduate, will most likely try to appeal to both sides. If he goes that route, Republican strategist Brian Robinson came up with a handy list of how he can appeal to UGA’s Republicans without offending fans of South Carolina or his home base of Florida.
Among them: Point out that UGA has a tight end named Jeb, highlight the power of the Southeastern Conference and offer Georgia standout Nick Chubb a chance to be his Polk County campaign chairman.
As to what not to say, Robinson also had some ideas:
• “I used to golf with Steve Spurrier when he was coach at Florida. Great guy.”
• “There’s too much inbreeding in the Uga line.”
• “Sir, I think you’ve had enough to drink.”
• Democrats are Georgia fans, too, and some couldn’t resist taking a swipe at both the candidate and South Carolina’s revered coach.
“Jeb Bush, much like Spurrier, would have been better off staying at home in Florida,” said Michael Tyler of the Democratic National Committee. “As both continue to slide rapidly in the polls, they need to do the country a favor and retire.”
So what have other candidates done when faced with a tailgating challenge?
Billionaire developer Donald Trump and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul both donned white button-up shirts and dark blazers when they greeted fans at last week’s Iowa-Iowa State matchup. And it seemed they could hardly take a step without being offered booze.
“I do need a beer,” Paul told one fan who offered him a swig, “but I’ve got to give a speech at about six o’clock tonight.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, like Bush a Floridian, would have a tougher time at a Georgia tailgate. He told an audience of millions at Wednesday’s debate that he wants his Secret Service code name to be “Gator” after his alma mater.
Other politicos better take note. Bush’s visit may not be the last to Athens on a game day before November 2016. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the architect of the SEC primary, is laying out the welcome mat.
“I look forward to welcoming Governor Bush — and any other presidential candidate — to my hometown for what is shaping up to be an exciting football season.”
Just hide your visor and be ready to turn down booze.