By: Jonathan Martin
April 28, 2010 04:54 AM EDT
Talk privately to just about any leading Republican about the 2012 presidential race, and you’ll often hear a sentence that starts with: “If his last name were …”
They’re talking about the former two-term governor of one of America’s largest states who is a reformer, a policy wonk and a savvy pol who left office on good terms — and whose last name happens to be Bush.
Were he not the brother of a recently departed and unpopular president, there is little doubt that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be an obvious, and formidable, White House prospect for the GOP.
Yet even with the family baggage, many Republicans remain convinced Bush could be a strong contender.
While he hasn’t shown any inclination to run in 2012, Bush is showing every sign he very much wants to remain in the political fray.
With little fanfare, the former governor is keeping up an aggressive campaign travel schedule and even wading into party primaries. Since the start of the year, he has stumped for gubernatorial candidates in Ohio, Alabama, Wisconsin, Nevada and California. Next month, he’s slated to raise money and talk policy with state House Republicans in Pennsylvania.
Bush met Byrne, a former Alabama education official, at a Republican Governors Association event last year and directed his staff to work with the candidate’s staff on education issues.
Bush then came to Birmingham last month to talk education policy with Byrne and raise money for him.
Back home in Florida, meanwhile, Bush looms as large as ever. Reporters and columnists have taken to the state’s newspapers in recent weeks to chew over just how much influence he still retains over state politics. One prominent Democratic state legislator even joked that 2010 represented Bush’s best legislative session.
In an interview, Bush, who disdains talk of political process, made clear he had little interest in a 2012 presidential run and even less in discussing his long-term prospects.
“I’m interested in achieving financial security for my family,” said the former governor, who runs a South Florida-based consulting company and also gives paid speeches.
The question, then, is just what role there is for a politician who, at 57, wants to stay in the public arena but whose father and brother have recently held the job that would be natural for him to aspire to.
Education policy seems to be the answer so far, a subject about which he is passionate — and expansive.
It’s no coincidence that Bush is targeting his assistance to candidates who are, like he is, committed to education reform, said an adviser.
Thanks in part to his Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, Bush continues to enjoy a high national profile on an issue that defined his tenure in Tallahassee.
The foundation stages annual education summits featuring fellow reformers such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in a policy niche on which Bush believes the two parties can find common ground.
He gives high marks to President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, particularly for their support of charter schools and the $4 billion Race to the Top program, in which states compete against one another for federal funding to be used for reform efforts.
“I believe they’re on the right track,” Bush told POLITICO, referring to the Obama administration’s approach to education.
As for his own party, Bush said he thought Republicans were reclaiming the mantle of “the party of ideas” even if it’s their opposition to the president that draws the most notice.
“Those don’t get the same attention as principled opposition to Obamacare,” he said.
One Republican whom Bush is not happy with, however, is his successor.
Bush is unambiguous when asked about GOP Gov. Charlie Crist’s recent veto of a major education bill that would have ended teacher tenure in the state.
“The governor vetoed [the bill] because of current political circumstances,” he said.
Since the veto, Crist, who is currently considering leaving the Senate Republican primary to run as an independent, has embraced the support of Democratic-leaning Florida educators.
While not formally endorsing Crist’s opponent, Marco Rubio, Bush has made little secret of his preference for the former state House speaker over Crist.
Bush himself seriously considered a bid for the Senate seat Rubio and Crist are now pursuing, yet even without an elected position in the party, he continues to hold significant standing.
More than three years after he left the governorship, Bush is still one of a handful of national Republicans who are frequently called on for political and policy advice. And with his father about to turn 86 and his brother in something of a self-imposed exile, Jeb Bush is now carrying the political torch for the family.
Pennsylvania state Rep. John Bear sought him out recently to raise money for the state House caucus.
“He has been very articulate about where the party needs to go,” said Bear, who will host Bush in Lancaster next month. “He knows we can’t just be the party of no but have to be creative and think out of the box.”
Byrne said the former governor didn’t just breeze into Alabama with the usual fundraising reception bromides, noting that Bush instead met with fellow education reformers in Birmingham.
“He wowed them,” Byrne said.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said he calls on Bush whenever he’s in South Florida and is in regular contact with him on the phone.
“He is a policy wonk but also a real leader for us,” Cantor said in an interview. “He has a real grasp on the challenges we face.”
The opportunities for the former governor, added Cantor, are unlimited.
But can another Bush really be elected to the presidency?
“It really comes down to the individual, and you can’t get any better than Jeb Bush,” he said.
Even if Bush, who, in keeping with the family tradition of avoiding self-analysis, doesn’t want to discuss the topic, some of his enthusiasts are glad to.
Alex Castellanos, a longtime GOP consultant who worked on Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns and is still in touch with his old client, argued that the family brand could be rehabilitated for Jeb just as it was for Hillary Clinton after her husband’s presidency.
“You search around the country for a Republican that everybody loves and everybody thinks could run for president, and it’s Jeb Bush,” said Castellanos.
In Florida, there is an element of exasperation among Bush allies about his last name’s being seen as such a liability. That’s because in state political circles, at least, Jeb was and is viewed as his own man.
Still, Florida Republicans recognize the challenge of not just running as the younger brother of George W. Bush but running as yet another member of a political dynasty.
“I’m not so sure the issue has as much to do with the former president’s approval ratings as the fact that we’ve never in our country’s history had three family members serve like this as president,” said Al Cardenas, a former Florida GOP chairman under Bush.
But even if he doesn’t run, Bush will continue to play an outsize role in the party and in policymaking — serving as somebody whose endorsement will be coveted by every candidate.
In some ways, the fact that he may ultimately never be able to run for president is empowering.
“That he’s not ambitious makes people listen to him more,” said GOP strategist Mary Matalin, a longtime Bush aide and family friend, who added: “We’re now living in an era where not being in office doesn’t preclude having an impact.”