Jeb Bush, the Florida governor, was a darling of the conservative movement who championed tax cuts, pro-growth policies, the end of raced-based college admissions and fiscal discipline in one of the most politically important states in the country.
Jeb Bush, the retired politician, hasn’t fared as well with the same movement, earning distrust over his views on such thorny topics as immigration, Common Core education reforms and tax increases.
So if the younger son of the 41st president and the brother of the 43rd commander in chief is to blaze his own path to the nomination, it may have to follow the script of another famous Republican who fell from conservative grace yet captured the GOP’s seal of approval: the 2012 version of Mitt Romney.
“Two factors are at work here,” said Joseph A. Morris, the United Republican Fund of Illinois former chairman. “Jeb faces enormous skepticism among conservatives about his principles and values. Second, conservatives across America, like many Chicagoans, are just plain skeptical of political dynasties at any level of government.”
Mr. Romney entered the race four years ago with the distrust of many conservative ideologues, who worried about his commitment to smaller government after creating a health care plan in Massachusetts that they believed looked a lot like Obamacare and championing environmental policies that some saw as Big Brother incarnate.
To win, Mr. Romney denounced or distanced himself from some of his actions in Massachusetts that were unpopular with conservatives. He did so not expecting to capture the base but to blunt some of its criticisms.
He then set out to raise massive amounts of money, which allowed him to build an infrastructure to collect delegates in states, whether he won the popular vote or not, and to create an air of inevitability.
He also relentlessly made the case against a field of lackluster competitors that he was the most electable Republican in November — a chief executive able to fix a broken economy and a dysfunctional government and work across the political aisle in a Democratic state like Massachusetts.
With all of his strategy in place and a commitment to discipline, Mr. Romney leveraged his financial advantage and infrastructure to play electoral math, rolling up delegate numbers in primaries and caucuses where voters were often split among a large field and capturing the Republican establishment’s benediction.
Mr. Bush, who announced Tuesday that he is officially exploring a presidential run, enters the 2016 race with much of the same obstacles and opportunities as the 2012 version of Mr. Romney.
Few doubt that the former Florida governor could amass a daunting campaign treasury, tapping a fundraising network built by two generations of Bushes who created such donor programs as Team 100, the Rangers and the Pioneers.
Likewise, Mr. Bush has made the obligatory steps away from some of his off-the-cuff remarks during retirement that landed him in hot water among conservatives.
First, he clarified remarks he made two years ago that some took as confirmation that he might support tax increases to balance the budget. Mr. Bush says he won’t raise taxes and doesn’t support doing so.
Second, Mr. Bush, who turns 62 in February, has backed away from his earlier support of amnesty for some illegal immigrants, saying he instead supports strong border security, expanded worker visas and a special temporary status for illegals so they have time to get right with the law or leave without arrest.
Mr. Bush and his surrogates already are queuing up the argument that his stewardship of the diverse, complex state of Florida — with its unique mix of seniors, Hispanics and military veterans — makes him the strongest general election candidate against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“He freezes everyone out,” Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist and major national Republican fundraiser, told The Associated Press. “Florida will be off limits to other presidential candidates should Jeb decide to run.”
Ironically, Mr. Romney and Mr. Bush lead in the voter recognition and presidential preference race in the latest McClatchy-Marist poll — 19 percent for Mr. Romney and 14 percent for Mr. Bush.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Hewlett-Packard President Carly Fiorina and physician-commentator Ben Carson are among the possibilities who quicken some pulses on the right. In most cases, though, they elicit fewer equivocations about their ideological reliability than about Mr. Bush’s.
All those candidates and their allies will be ready to exploit Mr. Bush’s perceived weaknesses. They will be certain to raise the argument against political dynasties, question his commitment to fighting illegal immigration and even harken back to the broken “read my lips” promise of his father, George H.W. Bush, to question his fidelity on tax increases.
“Jeb stabbed Republicans in the back,” the GOP’s most feared anti-tax enforcer, Grover Norquist, told The Washington Times recently. “Why replicate the mistake his father made that cost Republicans the presidency in 1992?”
Jeb Bush didn’t help his image with fiscal conservatives when he told lawmakers the reason for his unending disdain for Mr. Norquist’s anti-tax pledge signed by countless Republicans over the years.
“I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people,” he said, dismissing Mr. Grover’s anti-tax pledge essentially as a gimmick.
Anti-government conservatives also will challenge Mr. Bush on his support for Common Core education reforms, which many on the right see as ceding local control to Big Brother.
But while fiscal conservatives mount their questions, Mr. Bush will have some strong good will to draw upon among social conservatives, who recall that he intervened in the Terri Schiavo case in which the woman’s parents fought to keep their daughter on life support.
“His credentials on life are stellar,” said Los Angeles-based David Lane, who organizes for conservative causes among evangelical pastors. “Gov. Jeb Bush went to the wall for Terri Schiavo.”
All this means there is plenty of room for a Jeb Bush 2016 candidacy to maneuver among a wide field of competitors and to hit some potholes along the way.