"When are we going to read `Lord of the Flies'?"

a boy asks no one in particular. The boy, who probably regards that book as a guide to sound governance, does not distract the visiting gubernatorial candidate, who has his young audience purring."Are you hungry?" asks another future voter. Jeb Bush replies, "I was until I saw your food." Knocking the school cafeteria generates rapport with grade-schoolers.

In this, his second gubernatorial campaign, Bush has visited 138 schools, not counting the charter school - a public school - he helped found, with the local president of the Urban League, in Miami's desolate Liberty City section. An hour later he is in a West Palm Beach housing project, exhorting a group of mostly African-Americans planning their charter school.

There he stresses the importance but also the difficulty of getting parents involved, noting that the Liberty City school serves not "soccer moms" but "uniform moms" - postal workers, security guards, nurses' aides. A woman preacher notes that when God was thrown out of the classroom, in came drugs, knives and guns. Bush, who recently converted to Catholicism, hasn't the heart to tell her that the Supreme Court's vigilance against prayer encompasses charter schools.

A man delivers the homily Bush hopes to hear: "We need to be less concerned with a person's label than with what comes from his heart, because that's where God resides." Bush's Republican label did not deter endorsement by the Democrat who organized this meeting.

Mary Hooks, an African-American local official, endorsed him after Democrats in the state House of Representatives deposed the African-American representative who was their leader, saying he was too liberal and too indolent at fund raising. Florida's Legislature, which in 1997 became the first Southern legislature controlled by Republicans since Reconstruction, may pass a bill compensating two African-American men for wrongful imprisonment dating from a well-remembered 1963 incident.

Bush is determined that his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, will get a lot less than Gov. Lawton Chiles' 95 percent of black voters, who are about a third of Democratic registration, although blacks are just 15 percent of the population. And many are, like the people at the West Palm Beach housing project, cultural conservatives.

Polls show Bush, 45, with a 5- to 10-point lead. Both he and Mac-Kay, 65, are spurred by memories of narrow defeats. Absentee ballots sealed MacKay's 1988 loss of a Senate race to Connie Mack by 23,612 out of 4,065,046 votes cast.

In 1994 Bush, running against incumbent Chiles, lost the closest gubernatorial race in Florida history by 63,940 votes after Democratic phone banks unleashed a last-minute blitz of mendacious calls calculated to panic elderly voters about Bush's supposed plans to impoverish them. Otherwise Bush, like his less ideologically conservative brother, the governor of Texas, might be a presidential candidate.

Jeb Bush's conservatism is a work in progress. So is Florida, the population of which has recently grown at a faster rate than India's or China's and is undergoing constant churning. The state has high birth and death rates, and many people moving in, and ranks third in the nation in people leaving. As in the 19th-century West, people with an eye for the main chance either find it or move on. The result, says Bush (who like most Floridians is from somewhere else - he came from Texas in 1980), is a deficit of community feeling.

Bush regards charter schools, with their potential for energizing parents and neighborhoods, as one antidote to that. However, his preoccupation with early childhood development and education also reflects the feminization of American politics.

The 1994 congressional elections announced - or so triumphant Republicans said - a turn toward manly rigor and rugged self-reliance. Three and a half years later the vocabulary of politics is increasingly about nurturing and caring. Every subject, from medical care to tobacco, is cast in terms of its pertinence to "kids." Bush's candidacy, a case study in conservatism's coming to terms with all this, has national portents.

National politics in the next decade may be decisively shaped by this year's gubernatorial races. Control of statehouses will influence the 2000 presidential election. And by redrawing con-gressional districts after the 2000 census, Republican governors (there are now 32, in states with 322 congressional districts - 74 percent of the total) might help produce a 40-seat Republican majority in the House in 2003.

If so, the conservatives' ascendancy will continue, but in a low key. It will look very little like the radicalism that the victors of 1994 promised and will involve no rupture with the post-New Deal tradition of government as social therapist.