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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Some people are already waxing nostalgic about Rep. John Boehner, who has resigned as the Speaker of the House and leaving Congress.

Testy and stiff, the hard-drinking Ohio Republican wasn’t exactly a beloved fixture on the national scene. Sniffling over the pope helped soften Boehner’s image, but the main thing that’s made him more likable is the fact he’ll be gone soon.

It’s a strange American phenomenon. No matter how low they get in the polls, politicians start becoming more popular the minute they leave office.

Blamed for high gas prices and the Iran hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter got booted from the White House after four years. Today he is cheered wherever he goes. This is partly because of the charitable work he’s done since leaving government, and partly because Americans have a soft spot for the politically departed.

Saddled with Ronald Reagan’s sputtering economy, George H.W. Bush also lost the presidency after one anemic term. He’s never been more popular than he is today.

Same for Bill Clinton who, despite his impeachment saga, draws crowds like a rock star. Even George W. Bush, the brains behind the disastrous U.S. occupation of Iraq, is more fondly regarded now than during his last few years in the Oval Office.

Which brings us to his younger brother, Jeb, whose popularity has been creeping in the wrong direction ever since he announced his candidacy for president.

A mind-bending new Quinnipiac University poll shows Jeb running fourth among Republicans in Florida, behind Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio.

For those of you too young, too old, or too new to the Sunshine State, John Ellis Bush doesn’t just happen to reside in Florida. He was the governor for eight years, elected and re-elected with the crossover support of conservative Democrats.

His entire presidential campaign has been crafted around his self-buffed legacy as Florida’s chief executive, touting it in every stump speech and in every debate. Yet now, only 13 months before Election Day, he’s mired in fourth place in the one state where it was supposed to be a slam dunk. How is this possible?

The explanation might be simpler than you think: Jeb broke the cardinal rule of well-liked ex-politicians. He came out of retirement.

Not so long ago, when he was still a private Coral Gables businessman, he was a venerated and unassailable figure among Florida Republicans.

Check out the latest numbers:

Trump leads the pack in Florida with 28 percent. Next comes Carson at 16 percent, followed by Rubio with 14 percent.

Jeb is hanging on at 12 percent.

It’s one thing to be trailing a silly character like Trump in places like Iowa or New Hampshire, but to be 16 points down in a critical swing state, your home state, is truly shocking.

Rubio’s a legit contender, but Carson is a loony bird who can’t go more than a week without babbling something that requires a hasty “clarification.” His recent comment suggesting that the victims of the Oregon college massacre were too passive during the shootings was particularly idiotic.

It’s astounding that Jeb is lagging behind even this guy in Florida.

Sure, the former governor didn’t show much fire during the two televised debates. He’s also had some stumbles of his own, including that appalling “stuff happens” remark about the Oregon killings.

But stacked up beside the insult-belching Trump and the spacey Carson, Jeb should be looking like Winston Churchill.

Imagine if you were one of the wealthy donors who wrote a six- or even a seven-figure check to the Bush Super PAC early this year, thinking you were betting on a sure winner. Now you’re looking at the headlines and lunging for the bourbon.

The situation is so serious that Jeb is considering taking his ex-president brother on the fundraising trail, a once-unthinkable strategy. He risks reminding voters about Iraq and the 2008 financial meltdown that left the country with a Bush hangover. A seven-year absence from the scene is what has boosted George W’s numbers.

It’s too early for Jeb’s supporters to panic, because the race is far from over. He has collected more money than any other Republican, and he’s finally starting to spend some on advertising.

Jeb hopes that the conservative infatuation with Donald Trump will fade, Ben Carson will go home to Mars and other long-shot candidates will go broke and drop out. That’s the only path back to the top of the polls.

Where he would probably still be, if only he’d stayed retired.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush joins the audience in reciting the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance at a campaign town hall meeting in Bedford, New Hampshire September 30, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder