Please, Jeb. Pretty please? To hear a growing number of conservative activists tell it, the person best equipped to excite Republicans and beat Barack Obama in 2012 is a man who has no intent to run. The Jeb Bush chatter says as much about the seemingly anemic Republican presidential field slowly taking shape for 2012 as it does about the former Florida governor's stature in the GOP. At this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, more than a dozen candidates had announced or filed paperwork to raise money, while today only one Republican — former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain — has announced.
"None of the candidates talking about running now really stands out, but Jeb Bush would be really strong,'' said Adam Hubler of Virginia, among hundreds of conservative activists gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Between speeches by potential presidential contenders including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, true believers could take turns throwing eggs at a picture of Al Gore.
"There's no question Jeb Bush is one of, if not the, most popular Republican in the country, but the fact is he's not running,'' said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Republican strategist who helped Jeb's father win the White House in 1988.
In 2010, Senate candidates like Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania showed Republicans how ardent and uncompromising conservatives can win not only primaries, but also general elections. This year the Republican frontrunner is Romney, with his reputation for flip-flops and a record of enacting health care reform in Massachusetts that looks a lot like "ObamaCare."
Enter Jeb Bush, the authentic, can-do conservative whose last name no longer seems as big an albatross as it did when his brother was still in the White House or just out of it. He has a vast fundraising network and a knack for winning Hispanic and swing voters crucial to general election success.
Bush, who turned 58 Friday, did not respond to an e-mail about the latest presidential speculation but has said repeatedly he won't run in 2012. He has not closed the door on a presidential run in the future — he would be 63 in 2016 and 67 in 2020 — but since ending eight years as Florida's governor, he has been busy giving speeches and consulting, making money while keeping a high profile in advocating for education reform.
"I would love nothing more than for Jeb Bush to run for president one day and I would do anything I can to help him get there, but he's not running in 2012," said Republican strategist Mandy Fletcher Fraher, a former Jeb Bush aide. "All the talk about Jeb is a reflection of the lack of a clear leader, or two or three clear leaders, in the field.''
There's an opening
There certainly is a lot of talk.
National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote a column last week practically begging Bush to run and making a strong case for why he should.
"Obama is slightly below 50 percent in the polls, with a real weakness in the middle of the country, and he's saddled with a recovery that has yet to produce substantial job growth," Lowry wrote. "Yet there is no true frontrunner in the race to challenge him. It's hard to imagine an environment better suited for a heavyweight like Jeb to make a run."
Politico on Friday offered up its own Jeb buzz: "More and more Wall Streeters think (hope?) Jeb Bush will let the other GOP candidates beat each other up then swoop in late as the savior. These people say Bush fatigue will fade once people realize how different Jeb is from W."
Don't bet on it.
"There's certainly been renewed interest in the last several weeks and many people have reached out to him, but I remain convinced that he will not be a candidate,'' said Sally Bradshaw, Gov. Bush's top political adviser, who worked on Romney's campaign in 2008 but so far is uncommitted for 2012.
Despite the passion of many conservative activists for making Obama a one-term president, and most polls showing fewer than half of Americans approve of his job performance, the odds are against defeating an incumbent president, and Obama has already shown his ability to run a lavishly funded and fine-tuned campaign.
In that respect Bush might be wiser to wait until 2016, when he also would have more time between his brother's presidency and his candidacy.
Lowry contends it could be too late by then, writing: "By 2016, a bumper crop of Republican talent will be poised to storm the national stage. Marco Rubio not only will be the hot new thing out of Florida, he'll be seasoned. Chris Christie will be ready. A host of senators and governors — freshly minted in the 2010 elections, so it's too soon for them to run now — will be ready to go. Jeb will not be such a predominant figure in such a robust field. . . . It's an axiom of presidential politics that you have to run when you have the opening, even if it seems 'too soon.' This is why Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were elected president and Mario Cuomo never was."
It's whose turn?
The vast field of would-be Republican presidential candidates lacks a giant and includes everyone from little-known Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, to universally known figures ranging from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump to Newt Gingrich.
Romney should be the overwhelming frontrunner, given the hierarchical nature of Republican presidential politics. Historically, the party has nominated the logical next in line — Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, John McCain.
That would be Romney in 2012, but it's striking how much skepticism surrounds Romney's expected 2012 run.
"It's always been, 'It's my turn' in Republican presidential nominations, but this time there's a feeling of 'He had his turn,' '' Republican pollster David Hill said of Romney.
Like many Republicans, Hill sees a big opening for a late candidacy of someone like Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Part of that is typical grass-is-always-greener sentiment.
In 1979, many observers from both parties dismissed Ronald Reagan as a lightweight, just as most people early on dismissed the candidacy of an obscure governor named Bill Clinton in 1991.
"You have to put this in perspective," GOP strategist Kaufman said of the anxiety of the 2012 Republican field. "In 1980 every Democrat I ever talked to said, 'I hope you guys are stupid enough to nominate Ronald Reagan.' In 1988, everyone said, 'I hope you're stupid enough to nominate that wimp George W. Bush.' "
Stature in disinterest
Stanley Gaines, a prominent Republican fundraiser in Palm Beach, is a Jeb Bush fan and expects him to run in 2016 or 2020, but noted that he enjoys the glow of someone not in the middle of a campaign.
"You know how that goes,'' Gaines said. "Part of the reason people are longing for him is because he's not running."
Former Florida Republican party chairman Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush friend and the newly elected chairman of the American Conservative Union, is sure Bush won't run and said that makes him a more revered voice in education reform.
"The longer Jeb remains not interested in seeking higher office, the more his stature grows because Americans know that he is doing this for all the right reasons,'' Cardenas said.
Of course, Florida is still Florida — a must-win state for any Republican presidential campaign. And the next Republican nominee will need to court Hispanic voters, not just in the Sunshine State but also swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. No Republican is stronger at that than Florida's ex-governor.
Will Jeb Bush run for president in 2012? No. Vice president? Stranger things have happened.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]