He's the GOP vice presidential pick that Democrats fear most — a brassy choice who would likely deliver his crucial home state, boost the ticket with Hispanics and Catholics and appeal to both conservatives and independents.
The problem: Jeb Bush apparently doesn't want the job.
The former Florida governor raised eyebrows in Boston, Chicago and beyond earlier this month when he said in a rare interview that he'd "consider" being Mitt Romney's running mate. President Barack Obama's high command, believing Bush would effectively take Florida off the map, paid very close attention to the comments to Newsmax.
But sources close to Bush say he wasn't signaling anything and that's why he sought to shut down speculation with an email to Bloomberg's Mark Silva, a former Florida reporter, writing, "I am not going to be the veep nominee. Lay that to rest."
Interviews with about a dozen Bush associates say that's not the usual veepstakes nondenial denial — he truly doesn't want to be on the ticket. The common euphemism among the Jeb crowd is that it's just not his time, that the same factors that kept him out of the presidential primary make him unwilling to be the vice presidential nominee. There has been speculation that this is shorthand for 2012 being too close to his older brother's presidency, but those close to the younger Bush say it's his own wife and children he has in mind when he expresses reluctance about returning to politics.
"I told him that he absolutely has to be among the top three for whoever the Republican nominee is," said his eldest son, George P. Bush. "He said, 'That may or may not be the case but I'm not interested.' Right now, in his heart of hearts, he thinks there are other ways he can serve."
So Romney finds himself in an odd position. Perhaps his most obvious choice for a running mate — the one that would help politically and be an indisputable governing pick who could step into the presidency — is seemingly not an option. It's somewhat similar to the situation Obama found himself in with Hillary Rodham Clinton four years ago but may be more analogous to Colin Powell in 1996 — a household name with crossover appeal and sterling credentials whose concerns about family kept him out of the running for either of the top two spots on the ticket.
The good news for Romney is that Bush is willing to help. He has been emailing with senior Romney officials about how he can pitch in, and the presumptive nominee's campaign anticipates him offering a big lift as a surrogate and fundraiser. When Bush was in Boston recently, he made a point of stopping by Romney's headquarters and greeting aides. That's an improvement over a rocky few months between the two GOP powerhouses.
Bush publicly expressed discomfort over the tenor of the primary and privately was harsher. He grumbled to friends about Romney's hard-line position on immigration and was irritated at premature reports about him endorsing the front-runner. When Bush did eventually throw his support to Romney — after Romney's Illinois primary win — the Floridian avoided such leaks by putting out his own statement without the sort of advance coordination with Boston that's customary with other high-level Republicans. He's still yet to appear with the nominee in person, and his tendency to speak his mind about Romney and the party grates on some Romney loyalists.
Some Bush loyalists, for their part, aren't shy about reiterating their preference that it was Jeb and not Romney leading the party against Obama.
"Hell, I'd rather have him running for president than being talked about for vice president, but it's not happening," said Al Hoffman, a Florida megadonor and former Republican National Committee finance chairman who's close to Bush.
Asked directly if he wishes it was Bush who was the GOP's standard-bearer, Hoffman doesn't hesitate: "I do. But Romney won it fair and square."
Others in Bush's orbit want to get beyond what-could-have-been nostalgia for a Jeb campaign and show deference to the nominee — while making clear that he is not interested in the No. 2 slot.
"Of course, if asked, he'd take it seriously," said Bush's former chief of staff and informal adviser Sally Bradshaw. "But if he had wanted to be vice president, he would've run for president. There are plenty of other ways he can and will be helpful."
A Bush friend and donor was even more blunt.
"I truly believe Jeb wants to be VP as much as anybody wants to be chosen to compete in The Hunger Games," quipped Miami Republican Ana Navarro.
Those who know him well say Bush is happy making a living via his consultancy and paid speeches and gets policy fulfillment through his education foundation and the literacy foundation he and his sister took over from their mother late last year.
More important, his wife and daughter, both of whom shun the political spotlight, are content and Bush has little desire to upend that balance by exposing them to attention that would come with a national political campaign.
"He's not saying no to Mitt Romney, he's saying no to a life he can't embark upon right now," said longtime GOP ad man and Bush friend Alex Castellanos.
Still, some of his family and friends, while aware of his reluctance to be on the ticket, aren't giving up hope.
"It would be a phenomenal ticket," said George P. Bush.
Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union and former Florida GOP chairman, added hopefully: "Until you get that call or unless you get that call, you really don't know how your heart's going to react."
Asked if Bush is like the girl whom everyone wants to take to the prom but who just won't go, Cardenas shot back with a laugh: "You never would know for sure until you call."
Senior national Republicans are open about their desire for Bush.
"I think he is an obvious pick for a ton of reasons, not the least of which is Florida," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "But he would bring a lot of firepower to our ticket, and I suspect that in the end, it's going to be a question of whether he would want to be considered for that."
Among Florida politicos, the pining for a Romney-Bush ticket is especially strong. Sunshine State Republicans believe the duo would not only carry the state but help consolidate GOP gains from 2010 down-ballot.
"He ought to be on the top of the list as the ideal VP candidate," said Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam.
But most are all too aware that such a prospect is unlikely.
"Jeb is loved, respected and admired by our Cuban-American community, as is Marco," said veteran Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, referring to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also very high on intraparty potential veep lists. "But I doubt that either man will accept the position, were it to be offered."
The case for Bush is straightforward: Nobody else offers his combination of political appeal, policy chops and a record of accomplishment.
"He has a positive vision for how you govern from the right and a record of doing it," said Mike Murphy, a Bush adviser and strategist in his gubernatorial campaigns.
Romney and Bush would offer two serious-minded, reform-oriented politicians, say their advocates.
"It's a bit like Clinton-Gore — you square your strength," Castellanos said. "But it would be Moses squared — let's all go to a better place together. It would be an attack on the wrong track, a reminder that there's a better America out there."
Bush is not without a downside. Even though his admirers are confident that he'd be seen by voters as his own man, his last name would remind the country of his brother's presidency and raise uncomfortable questions about political royalism. As George Will said on ABC's This Week last Sunday, Bush as veep would mean "that in seven of nine presidential elections, there would be a Bush on the Republican ticket. And it gets hard to argue that we're not a tribal society at that point."
To ameliorate such concerns, some top Republicans have whispered about Bush accepting the No. 2 slot and immediately pledging to never run for president. But Bush's loyalists dismiss such a ploy as a nonstarter.
So what, then, does the 59-year-old son and brother of a president who has already served two terms leading one of the country's largest states do at such a moment in his career?
"I don't want to say he can be a party elder because he's not that old and still has a future," said Ann Herberger, Bush's longtime chief fundraiser. "But he'll be a sane voice in the party."
He'll lend a hand on the political front, both with Romney and with other Republican candidates. Some of this is under the radar. Last week in Miami, for example, he raised money at a small lunch for North Dakota Senate candidate Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D.
But Bush's passion has always been for policy. His associates say that the wonky, impatient executive is not interested in a Cabinet post but still wants to stay involved in public service. A commission with a specific mandate and goal could appeal to him.
George P. Bush, a Texas resident who'd himself like to run for office, said his father will continue to focus on education and keep pushing the party on immigration reform.
"He'll use the bully pulpit to maintain a focus on that," George P. Bush said of immigration. "There's a lot of work to be done. A lot was lost in terms of the favor (with Hispanics) we had gained."
POLITICO and the Tampa Bay Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.