- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The speakers at the Tennessee Republican Party fundraiser over the weekend took turns heaping praise on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the keynote speaker at the annual Statesmen’s Dinner.

While Gov. Bill Haslam and Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker stopped short of an official endorsement of the likely presidential candidate, their comments did more than hint that they would welcome his entry into the race.

“If we want to win the presidency we’re going to have to appeal to a broad number of Americans that we haven’t been appealing to over the last several years,” Alexander said. “He’s shown a capacity to do that.”

Corker said he sees in Bush a like-minded approach to staking out positions that he considers right even if they aren’t politically popular.

“Governor, I’ve been watching you,” Corker said. “I’ve seen a lot of people changing positions over the course of this election - you have not. And for that I respect you greatly.”

But even if Bush ends up gaining the support of the heavy hitters in the state GOP, it’s uncertain whether primary voters in Tennessee will follow suit.

Despite endorsements from Haslam and Alexander in 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost in Tennessee to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. And another social conservative, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, won the primary over eventual nominee John McCain in 2008.

Both Santorum and Huckabee have announced they are running again in 2016.

“It is very predictable that Haslam, Corker, and Alexander would ally with Bush and continue pushing big government, one size fits all solutions like Common Core and Obamacare expansion,” said Ben Cunningham, the president of the Nashville Tea Party.

“The conservative activist base of the Tennessee Republican party has drifted away from the Haslam dynasty and their allies in much the same way that tea party conservatives nationally have drifted away from the Bush dynasty,” he said.

Haslam at the fundraiser called Bush one of the best governors of the last two decades, citing his accomplishments in budgeting, job creation and education.

“I’ve obviously been impressed with this record, but I’m even more impressed with who he is as a person and who is he is as a husband and father and as a member of his community,” Haslam said.

Alexander in his re-election last year leaned heavily on Huckabee and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another Republican presidential aspirant to prevail in a closer-than-expected GOP primary against a tea party-styled opponent. But Alexander was coy about whether he now owes either a favor, or whether he will ultimately support Bush.

“I don’t know yet,” he told reporters before the event. “I have great admiration for Mike Huckabee and I have great admiration for Jeb Bush. And I like Rand Paul a lot, too.”

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was a prominent supporter of Santorum in the 2012 race, but said he has not yet made up his mind among the 2016 batch of candidates. He said state Republicans don’t necessarily have to be at odds with each other over who they want to support for the nomination.

“I don’t think social conservatives reject the fiscal conservative,” he said. “We just put a different priority on it.”

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