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2016 landscape shifts as Jeb Bush eyes run for president

Move could reforge GOP primary season

Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, could be an early frontrunner in his party’s primary.
Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, could be an early frontrunner in his party’s primary.Getty Images/File

WASHINGTON — Former governor Jeb Bush of Florida announced Tuesday that he is exploring a run for president, a move that could dramatically reshape the Republican primary as he tries to become an unprecedented third member of his family to occupy the White House.

The decision, which Bush announced on Facebook and Twitter, came earlier than anticipated and accelerated the 2016 presidential nominating contest and the dash to corral campaign contributors. While Bush’s statement stopped short of announcing a definite bid, it was treated that way by many.

“In about two sentences he redefined the Republican process,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican operative. “Suddenly you have someone who is not a maybe, but a given. And it changes the calculus for a lot of people.”

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Bush, the brother and son of former presidents, could be an early front-runner in his party’s primary, and his entry as an establishment favorite could diminish the possibility that former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts mounts a third presidential bid, analysts said.

Although Romney has repeatedly ruled out a candidacy, his supporters have held out hope that if no strong establishment candidate emerged, the former presidential nominee could be drawn into the race.

A Washington Post-ABC News national poll of Republican voters released Tuesday showed Bush leading the Republican primary field with 15 percent if Romney is not included. Romney would outdraw Bush, 20 percent to 10 percent, according to the poll.

If he runs, Bush, 61, is likely to focus considerable attention on the first-primary state of New Hampshire, which has already seen visits from potential candidates such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Perry of Texas.

New Hampshire could be key, as it was for his father, who was beaten in Iowa in 1988 but recovered to win the Granite State and the nomination.

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Bush has spent little time in the state, aside from passing through on his way to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Republican political operatives do not remember him making any trips perhaps since 2000, when he was campaigning for his brother’s presidential bid.

“He’s a guy who would play well here,” Rath said. “He’s small government, low taxes. He talks about things in a practical common sense way that will resonate well with Republicans.”

In early voting states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, and among the donors, Bush’s announcement brings a shadow primary into the open. He wrote on his Facebook page that he spent Thanksgiving discussing “the future of our nation” with his family.

“As a result of these conversations and thoughtful consideration of the kind of strong leadership I think America needs, I have decided to actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States,” Bush wrote.

Bush still has several steps before he would become a formal candidate. He announced that in January he will form a leadership PAC, which can pay for his travels and provide funds for politicians whose support he may need in a presidential bid. Similar accounts have been set up by potential candidates such as Paul and Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican. That is a step short of forming a presidential exploratory committee.

If Bush runs and wins the Republican primary and Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic choice, it would set up a clash of political dynasties. Long before George W. Bush became president in 2001, many in the Bush family believed Jeb would be the son who would carry the White House torch for his family.

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But the family name could become a challenge for Jeb Bush. George W. Bush left the White House in 2009 as a polarizing president. It’s a challenge even the family matriarch recognized when she predicted in 2013 that Jeb Bush would not run for president.

“There are other people out there that are very qualified,” Barbara Bush, the former first lady, told NBC’s “Today” in April 2013. “And we’ve had enough Bushes.” Family members have said that she now supports Bush in his bid.

Bush has portrayed himself as a small-government conservative. In Florida, he promoted outsourcing of state services, lower taxes, and school vouchers. He also intervened in the dispute over whether to remove a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, a brain damaged woman in a persistent vegetative state, ordering her feeding tube reinserted in 2003 after lawmakers gave him the authority.

“Anybody who was breathing air in Florida knows Jeb to be a true conservative, and I don’t say that as a compliment,” said Dan Gelber, a Democrat and Miami lawyer who served as one of Bush’s primary antagonists when he served in the Florida Legislature.

Yet Bush has staked out some positions that have become unpopular in the Republican base. That could hurt him in a primary but help in a general election. He favors the so-called Common Core national education standards. On immigration, Bush supports a pathway to legal status for immigrants in the country illegally.

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He was criticized by conservatives for saying in April that some undocumented immigrants move to the United States out of an “act of love” for their families and should be treated differently from other undocumented immigrants.

In the laying the groundwork for a potential run, Bush has said in recent weeks that a good candidate must be willing “to lose the primary to win the general” election, an indication that he is willing to buck elements of his party that oppose his views. It was perceived by some as a critique of Romney, whose comment that he was “severely conservative” may have hurt him in the 2012 general election.

Bush has said in recent days that he will release 250,000 e-mails from his time in office, from 1999 through 2007, and will publish an e-book detailing his views. Bush is also preparing to face questions about his financial dealings, including his position as chairman of an off-shore private equity fund. He gave a commencement speech in South Carolina, an early primary state, on Monday.

Bush’s candidacy could be particularly appealing to party leaders who have pushed the GOP to engage more with the growing population of Hispanic voters. His wife, Columba, is Mexican-American, and Bush is fluent in Spanish, which he has used throughout his political career to address Florida’s active Spanish-language media.

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Former senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican, said, “This is not going to be like last time when we had really one person who could be president, in Mitt Romney.”

Related coverage:

Jeff Jacoby: A Clinton vs. Bush race? Again?

P.J. O’Rourke: Ready, set . . . run!


Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman. Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com