If or when Jeb Bush enters the Republican primary presidential race, he will face a much deeper political bench than in 2012, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was seen by many as the only responsible choice for the party.
“This is not going to be, as they called it [then], Mitt Romney and the seven dwarfs. This is going to be a legitimate field of contenders,” said Tom Bevan, co-founder of the political website RealClearPolitics.com. “I think that might prove a little bit more problematic for Bush because it’s not going to be like he’s the only adult in the room.”
The other “adults” could include the party’s rising stars, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, libertarian-minded Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Tea Party favourite Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
And while the potential of a 2016 Bush/Hillary Clinton match up will cause most political observers to salivate, Bush, who announced on Tuesday he will “actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States,” could have a challenging time slogging through the primaries.
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“I think he’s a formidable candidate but I don’t think there’s anybody that can step into the Republican race and become what we would traditionally think of as a front-runner,” said Republican strategist Vin Weber, who has worked on a number of Republican campaigns, including Romney’s. “I think it’s too wide open this time.”
Last time on a ballot was 2002
“His biggest competition is not Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, it’s what we call the establishment wing of the Republican party,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “He’s trying to box out Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and also tamp down the potential pining for Romney. And this is very important because you have to realize the last time he was on a ballot was 2002.”
Not only will Bush have to dust off his political chops, the former governor will have to brace for a bashing from the the far-right conservative wing of the party, which is opposed to his approach to illegal immigration, his support for the conservative-reviled Common Core academic standards and his refusal in the past to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.
“I think a big problem for Jeb Bush will be some of the Tea Party base is just going to find his candidacy to be anathema,” said political analyst Geoffrey Skelley, who is associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics
And then, of course, there is the name he shares with two former presidents: his father Bush Sr., who has become a popular elder statesman, and his brother George W., who left the White House with dismal approval ratings and a legacy that continues to remain controversial.
Yet Jeb Bush, a policy wonk, is not his brother, and although it has been years since he ran for office, his political legacy in Florida, a must-win state for a Republican presidential contender, is strong. His wife Columba was born in Mexico and Bush is fluently bilingual, a major advantage in for a member of a party trying to attract a growing demographic that continues to flock to the Democrats.
As for his conservative credentials, the anti-abortion, pro-gun rights Bush endeared himself to the right as governor by cutting taxes and slashing billions from the Florida state budget.
“The buzz about Jeb Bush for decades always was that he was the most conservative of the Bushes,” said Weber. “I wouldn’t begin by saying he has no credibility on the right. He does. Lots of things he did as governor on educational reform and on taxes and social issues that are quite conservative put him in good standing with the right wing of the party.”
Bevan said that despite some of the “warts” he may be perceived to have among the more conservative wing of the party, Bush would still be one of the top-tier candidates.
“He’s got the name, he’s got the fund-raising ability, he’s going to be able to put together the organization. So he will be formidable.”
Added Skelley: “Looking at the primary, I think there’s no question that the establishment loves Jeb Bush, and typically the establishment candidate wins the Republican nomination in the end.”
As for his last name, it’s definitely “a double-edged sword” that comes with baggage, said Bevan. On the other hand, “he’s got name recognition that other candidates would kill for.”
Time, as well, has helped bolster his brother’s presidential reputation from where it was when he left office.
“Look to see where George W’s numbers are today,” O’Connell said. “Obviously not sky high but they’re above water and Obama’s are in the drain. They’re not an albatross around his neck the way they were four or eight years ago.”