Article oringinally appeared in the June 15, 2015 edition of Financial Times
When Jeb Bush, the son of one former president and brother of another, revealed in December that he was exploring a run for the White House, it sparked expectations that the 2016 election would repeat the 1992 race by pitting a Bush against a Clinton.
Hillary Clinton was already the Democratic frontrunner even though the wife of former President Bill Clinton had not yet declared. When people around Jeb Bush began touting his “shock and awe” fundraising — including dinners costing $100,000 a head — it fuelled a sense that he would steamroll past his Republican opposition, particularly after his emergence encouraged Mitt Romney to opt against making a third run at the White House.
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Yet when the former Florida governor formally launches his campaign in Miami on Monday, the Republican establishment favourite will be starting from a much weaker position, having failed to sail ahead of his rivals in the polls.
While he is expected to have raised in the region of $100m, his campaign has played down that figure. “We have never set a goal like that,” said Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the Republican party in Florida. “[But] whatever number it is, it will be so much more than anyone else will have raised.”
But there has been little “awe” judging by the fact that 10 other Republicanshave entered the race and more than a half a dozen others are contemplating running.
John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio who is also considering a campaign, last week gave voice to what a growing number of people in the GOP establishment say privately: “I thought Jeb would take up all the oxygen. He hasn’t.”
In many ways Mr Bush is the ideal candidate to help the party recapture the White House. As a governor of Florida, he ran a big state that alongside Ohio is one of the two critical swing states on the path to the Oval Office. His moderate position on immigration would be more palatable to voters than most of his rivals in the general election. And the fact that he speaks Spanish and has a Mexican wife should boost support among Latinos, the fastest growing demographic of the electorate.
The Republican establishment views Mr Bush as the candidate with the best chance of attracting minority voters, which Mr Romney lost in droves in 2012. His stance on social issues such as gay marriage, while conservative, are more moderate than some of his party rivals, which could help win independent voters. But Mr Bush faces several hurdles on the path to the nomination, including his surname.
While some Republicans, such as veteran lobbyist Charlie Black, say the Bush name may help with supporters of his brother — who remains popular with the conservative base — others say his candidacy implies the very kind of dynastic succession that the founding fathers wanted US democracy to overcome.
“He has been an exceptionally effective governor … but the third member of one family to pursue the presidency is a very difficult element to get over,” says one Republican who served under George W Bush. “It does not seem consistent with what our system is supposed to be about. That [also] applies to the Clintons.”
Mr Cardenas dismisses the dynasty question as “nothing more, nothing less than pure politics”, saying that Republicans who want to back another candidate will use it as an excuse. Mr Black says the “so-called dynasty issue just cancels out” if the race ends up being Bush v Clinton. But he says Mr Bush needs to “get out there and establish his own identity” — an area where he has stumbled in recent weeks.
The big picture is that Jeb Bush is still the frontrunner and the most likely nominee of the party … and the most likely person to beat Hillary Clinton
- Vin Weber, former Minnesota congressman
Asked if he would have invaded Iraq given what we know now — that it had no weapons of mass destruction — Mr Bush stunned observers by answering “yes”, before saying days later that he would not have. Supporters say he misunderstood the question, but critics say he should have been better prepared for such an obvious question.
An even bigger challenge than his name, however, is the chasm between the GOP establishment and the anti-establishment Tea Party and conservative base, which have doubts about his conservatism.
Mr Bush has described himself as a “headbanging conservative” who as Florida governor cut taxes and earned the nickname “Veto Corleone” for his efforts to rein in spending. He supported abortion restrictions and signed the first “Stand your ground” law in the US, which allows people to defend themselves with “deadly force” when people intrude on their property.
But he has come under fire from conservatives for his approach on illegal immigration where he supports a pathway to legal residency for 11m undocumented workers. The Tea Party also vilifies him for supporting Common Core, a set of national education testing standards that critics say relegate the rights of states.
Jim Manley, a former Democratic congressional aide, says that while Mr Bush had a “largely conservative record” on economic issues, his stance on Common Core and immigration would be “red meat for the Republican base in Iowa and New Hampshire”, which are the two states that vote first in the Republican primary calendar.
Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman, dismisses concerns about his candidate, saying the fact that there are so many GOP contenders has caused some in the party to lose perspective. “The big picture is that Jeb Bush is still the frontrunner and the most likely nominee of the party … and the most likely person to beat Hillary Clinton,” says Mr Weber. “When the dust settles, the reality is that Jeb Bush has the best record.”
■ Personal Fluent Spanish speaker married to Mexican-born Columba. Described himself as “Hispanic” on a voter registration form in 2009 and later joked on Twitter that “Don’t think I’ve fooled anyone!” Comes from a Protestant family, but converted to Catholicism and would be only the second Catholic president after John F Kennedy.
■ Private sector Worked for a bank in Venezuela before entering politics and made a fortune in the Florida real estate industry. He was employed as an adviser to Lehman Brothers before its collapse during the financial crisis and took an advisory role at Barclays, the UK bank.
■ Campaigns Failed in his first campaign for Florida governor in 1994, the same year that his brother became governor of Texas. Won the election four years later, and served two terms until 2007.
■ Conservatism Self-described “headbanging” conservative who earnt the sobriquet “Veto Corleone” for cutting spending. Florida became first state to introduce licence plates with the words “Choose Life” during his tenure. Unsuccessfully tried to prevent husband of Terri Schiavo, woman who had spent years in a vegetative state, from removing the feeding tube that was keeping her alive. Converted a Florida jail to the first “faith-based” prison in the US. Conservatives outside Florida view him with scepticism because of his views on immigration and national education standards.
■ Economy Florida saw its credit rating raised to AAA while he was governor. He slashed government jobs by privatising many government services. While he presided over the creation of more than 1m jobs during his tenure, critics say many were low-paid jobs with no health insurance that made it hard for families to survive during the housing boom in the state.
Author, Demetri Sevastopulo; Twitter: @DimiSevastopulo