- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The word last week that 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is thinking about a third run for the Oval Office took many Republicans and particularly many establishment Republicans by surprise. The Bush family’s latest contender had already made it clear that he will run and his friends were working to clear the field for him, the talking heads were anointing him as the “adult” in the race, and other wannabes were supposedly reining in their ambitions.

However, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has a problem. In office he governed as a conservative, but after leaving office he repositioned himself as a more “moderate” Republican, criticizing Mr. Romney for losing because he had been too conservative. Today’s Jeb Bush is, therefore, seen by most Republican primary voters not as “the conservative former Florida governor,” but as “the former conservative Florida governor.” That’s a big difference.

The two issues that have cost Mr. Bush on the right are immigration “reform” and his embrace of Common Core, the program to nationalize school standards that has outraged parents across the country.

One has to assume that Mr. Bush has focused on these issues because he believes them, rightly or wrongly, to be among the most important we face and because he cares deeply about both. When he decided to throw in with the “comprehensive” immigration reformers and the Obama administration’s decision to nationalize educational standards, he couldn’t have been thinking of a potential presidential candidacy. If he had been, he would have focused attention on his record in Florida and would have had GOP conservatives cheering in the aisles. On everything from the size of government to taxes, guns and the social issues, Mr. Bush was a solid governor, but his exclusive focus on immigration and Common Core has redefined him in a way that will make a 2016 run more difficult than it might have had to be.

He seems, however, to have embraced his new image and the establishment donors who always seem to believe that the more “moderate” a candidate the better. Mr. Bush seems proud of the fact that his stands could cost him conservative support, he won’t be in Iowa later this month, and suggests that by ignoring or even attacking the Republican right, he could be a stronger general election candidate.

Until last week, that strategy might have made at least some sense. Both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 won their party’s nomination because they emerged as the single quasi-establishment favorite in a divided field of conservatives. The common wisdom emerging this year is that the party will endure two contests: one among pro-establishment or moderate Republicans and one among conservatives, with the winners facing off in an ultimate battle for the nomination. In such a contest, if someone like Jeb Bush could wrap up the establishment early, he would be in position to slip through before his conservative opponents get their acts together.

All he had to do was dry up the money available to the Chris Christies and John Kasichs of the world, force them out and be prepared like Goliath to take on the lesser candidates to his right. That changed with Mr. Romney’s hint that he might run. Donors immediately decided to take a second look and the specter of a bitter and personal struggle among moderate Republicans became a real possibility.

The odds may be against Mr. Romney actually mounting another campaign, but a candidate once bitten by the bug is always thinking about making just one more run. As Mr. Romney reportedly told his financial supporters, “I want to be president.” If such a race develops, it could get very bitter very quickly because the two camps will be competing for the same donors, operatives and voters. Those who fail to “come back” to Mr. Bush will be viewed by his camp as “traitors” and the Romney camp will look in the same way upon those who supported him in 2012 only to defect to Mr. Bush this year.

Then there are those primary voters and party activists who will want someone other than either Mr. Bush or Mr. Romney, who they and the media will view as part of the GOP’s past rather than its future. They feel both left out and unwanted by candidates who see them as a liability rather than an asset, and seem increasingly willing to say so. It may be unfair to characterize either Mr. Romney or Mr. Bush as “liberals” or even “moderates,” but political life isn’t fair. Neither will excite the party base and if either is nominated, many of those same voters who sat on their hands in 2012 could end up doing the same thing next year.

Although that’s the pessimist’s view of what might transpire, it is just as possible that a more conservative candidate could slip through as establishment heavyweights focus on each other rather than on the prize they are seeking.

David A. Keene is Opinion Editor of The Washington Times.

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