By NEIL KING JR.
Close aides and friends say former Fla. Governor Jeb Bush is actively weighing a run for president, something he didn’t do in the last election cycle. But as WSJ’s Neil King reports, the Republican party is divided about another Bush candidacy.
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As Republicans begin the early jockeying for the 2016 presidential race, the intention of one man, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, dominates conversations and informal strategy sessions.
Within the party, Mr. Bush is seen as the one potential candidate whose decision on whether to run—yea or nay—has the power to scramble the rest of the field.
Close aides and friends say he is actively weighing a run, something he didn’t do in the last election cycle. “Gov. Bush has made a decision to make a decision at some point about running for president,” said Sally Bradshaw, a longtime adviser who talks frequently with Mr. Bush, who declined to comment for this article.
With Republicans lacking a clear leader after their loss in November, conservatives are of two minds about Mr. Bush, who is the brother and son of the two last GOP presidents, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, respectively.
On the one hand, few can rival his name recognition, his stature within the party, his résumé as governor, or his clout within GOP money circles. Among Democrats, only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might enter the race with similar muscle.
But conservatives worry about leaning on the Bush name yet again at a time when the GOP is trying to reintroduce itself to voters and can draw on plenty of new talents, including Florida senator and Bush protégé Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. No Republican not named Bush has won the White House since 1984, an eternity in politics.
Murmurings about a possible Bush run have already provoked groans in some quarters. It is time for conservatives “to move beyond picking the next elder white guy in line,” said Matt Kibbe, a prominent tea-party activist and president of FreedomWorks, a conservative campaign group.
And yet, the GOP loss in the latest presidential election has led many other conservative leaders to see Mr. Bush as the ideal person to widen the party’s message while expanding its reach, above all among the country’s fast-growing Hispanic population.
A Spanish speaker whose wife is Mexican-American, Mr. Bush, 59 years old, has long advocated a comprehensive fix to the country’s immigration problems. As governor, he was a pioneer in pushing for school choice and tougher teacher standards, and he now runs a high-profile education think tank. He trimmed taxes in Florida while leaving the state in the black and with the jobless rate below the national average.
“Some argue after 60 years of Nixon, Reagan and Bushes, the party should move on,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which advocates for social conservatism and limited government. “But if the goal is principled conservative leadership that overperforms among Hispanics and women, no one has been more effective than Jeb.”
Mr. Bush’s decision could make others revise their own White House aspirations. Few insiders expect that Mr. Rubio would run against his longtime mentor. Others speculate that a Bush candidacy could dry up the donor base that other centrist Republicans, such as Mr. Christie, would need. A Bush run wouldn’t likely preclude a Jindal candidacy.
There is little doubt Mr. Bush would face challenges, should he make a run, with his moderate position on immigration and his family name potentially among them. He lamented at a breakfast with Washington reporters in June that both his father and President Ronald Reagan would have had trouble navigating through today’s GOP, which he said often has “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”
He may also have to find ways to distance himself from his brother, the previous president. More than half of voters in the November election told pollsters they blamed George W. Bush for the country’s economic woes.
Longtime Bush friend Al Cardenas is one of many who say they were besieged by calls in the weeks after the November election from businesspeople and current and former GOP elected officials who hope Mr. Bush gives serious thought to a 2016 race.
“I feel confident the governor would dispel any concerns about his conservative bona fides the minute he entered the race, if he does,” said Mr. Cardenas, former head of the Florida GOP and chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Still, some Bush allies remain skeptical he will take the plunge. As evidence, they cite concerns his wife and children may not want to face the glare of a presidential campaign, financial pressures, and a general wariness of jumping into what has now become a multiyear, $1 billion slog.
Others note that he appears content doing what he’s doing now, weighing in on education policy as an advocate of school choice and common testing standards, while running a consulting business. A new book he has written on immigration will come out this spring.
“Jeb leads a full and happy life,” said Florida GOP strategist Ana Navarro, a friend of the former governor’s. “It’s not like the burning thought of being president keeps him up at night.”
A version of this article appeared January 7, 2013, U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: In GOP, All Eyes on Jeb Bush.