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  1. Florida Politics

Adam C. Smith: Come on Jeb, end the farce and declare your campaign for president

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton have done it. Now it's time — past time, really — for Jeb Bush to come clean on what everybody already knows.

Admit it, Gov. Bush, you are running for president. To do otherwise is dishonest.

Bush made the decision four months ago to announce he would "actively explore the possibility of running for president," thereby kicking the 2016 presidential contest into gear far earlier than anyone expected.

Ever since, Bush has crisscrossed the country courting Republican activists and donors, raised tens of millions of dollars, resigned from assorted corporate boards, sold his interests in businesses that could pose a conflict of interest, and hired a growing number of campaign professionals. He is poised to open a campaign office in Miami, and campaign advisers are moving to Miami within days.

"Bush has not decided whether to run for the White House, but he would like to have the job, he said," the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported after interviewing Bush on Tuesday.

It's a farce. The former Florida governor is unwilling to call himself a candidate for president or even to acknowledge he is "testing the waters" because to do so would trigger campaign finance law restrictions on how he can raise and spend money and how much he can coordinate with leaders of his "Right to Rise" political committee that was expected to pull in at least $100 million by the end of March.

Put aside the legitimate questions about how Bush is skirting campaign finance laws — or breaking them, as a number of experts allege.

How about that quaint notion that candidates for America's highest office ought to tell the truth? Does anyone actually believe Jeb Bush has not decided he is running for president?

Perhaps that was the case in January, as he was just starting to meet with donors and voters and reporters and had not yet seen how he would be received. That no longer holds water, and it hasn't for a long time.

Texas Sen. Cruz made his candidacy official March 23.

"We had already determined that we had the grass roots support, the infrastructure and would raise enough money to compete," said Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler. "Timidly announ­cing an exploratory committee is tantamount to announcing you are not ready."

Bush is too timid even to timidly announce an exploratory committee. That would require him to pay for his travel to places like Iowa and New Hampshire with individual contributions of no more than $2,700 per contributor. As a noncandidate, Bush can fund his noncampaign with $100,000-a-head fundraising receptions for his Right to Rise super PAC.

Whether Bush is a candidate depends, Bill Clinton might say, on what your definition of "is" is. Bush spelled out his legalistic parsing of words when he spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February: "If I go beyond the consideration of the possibility of running, which is the legal terminology that many of the people here coming to CPAC are probably using to not trigger a campaign. … "

He all but joked about it during a forum in New Hampshire last month. "I'm considering the possibility of running," he corrected someone who called him a presidential candidate.

"I get really nervous about not triggering a campaign with all of these people around," he said, and the reporters covering him laughed along with everyone else in the room.

Ha ha. Let's not suggest I'm breaking the law or anything, folks. Wink-wink, yuk-yuk.

Two leading, nonpartisan campaign finance groups, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, have filed formal complaints against Bush and others for not only skirting the law but breaking it. They say they are in compliance.

Rubio has been paying his presidential campaign team out of his political committee for years and using that committee to pay for trips to places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

For months, no one doubted Hillary Clinton was running, though she made it official only Sunday. But unlike Bush, Clinton has only now started raising money and hitting the campaign trail.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker claims, implausibly, that he hasn't made up his mind about running for president. So does New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, though his claim is more plausible given his many political problems.

Nobody is raising money — or pushing the envelope on campaign finance laws — more than Bush, whose allies have also created a new group, Right to Rise Policy Solutions, that may never even have to disclose its donors.

Bush's campaign sounds like it is in no rush to make the campaign official and kick in a lot of pesky legal restrictions on how he raises and spends his donations.

"There are no votes being cast until next year," said Right to Rise spokeswoman Kristy Campbell. "Gov. Bush is taking this consideration process very seriously. Should he choose to run, he wants to earn voters' support. He will make a final decision at some point this year."

At some point this year, however, Bush may find his noncampaign campaign makes primary voters start to doubt his honesty as much as they do his positions on Common Core and immigration reform.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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