Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's announcement on Tuesday that he is "actively exploring" a presidential campaign has sent a jolt through a Republican 2016 primary process that had been heading to a quiet end in 2014.
The move sets a new phase of the race in motion and makes it easier for Bush to prepare for a full-fledged campaign. At the same time, it increases the difficulty for some of his potential rivals to consolidate support among key Republican officials while giving others a handy target to use in gathering loyal, grass-roots support.
Other candidates in the past, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, have set up formal "exploratory committees," which are usually a precursor to making it official they are running. Bush stopped short of this, instead forming a "Leadership PAC," like Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz and other potential 2016 Republican candidates have already done.
With this PAC, Bush will be able to raise money to court key support, pay consultants and finance travel to early states as he flirts with a candidacy, as Paul and others have been doing for months. Most of the Republican candidates are not expected to officially "announce" their campaigns and set up headquarters until April, so Bush can use this PAC to fund his operations for the next three months.
And the announcement, made on Facebook, is also a very strong signal to the broader American public about something political insiders have known for months: Jeb Bush wants to be president and could try to continue his family's political legacy, like Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.
"It's a strong and bold move by Bush. While he is only announcing the formation of a leadership PAC, it clearly communicates that he is very serious about running for president in 2016," said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. "It also should end a lot of the speculation that is going on between him and someone like Romney. If Romney is serious, he will now need to make a similar action."
Bobbie Kilberg, a major donor for Romney in 2012, said, "I think that Jeb is trying to clear the field by announcing an active exploration today and the formation of an exploratory committee in January. He now has gotten out ahead of everyone else, and I think this may force the hand of other candidates to move earlier than perhaps they had wanted to."
Kilberg said that Bush had e-mailed her two weeks ago with the message, "'if I run', I want your support."
In truth, Bush has been "exploring" a presidential candidacy for months, meeting with key Republican officials and donors, visiting states like South Carolina and publicly speaking about how he wants to run an "uplifting" and "positive" presidential campaign. Bush has suggested that, like his brother in 2000, he will run a campaign in which he argues the Republicans need to articulate their policy plans clearly and spend less time attacking Democrats.
"Republicans need to show they're not just against things, that they're for a bunch of things," Bush said in a speech earlier this month.
Bush's formal announcement on Tuesday will intensify the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the more than 15 Republicans who are considering campaigns.
With Bush moving closer to a run, big-money Republican donors, who are more moderate than party activists and very focused on finding a candidate who can win the general election, are likely to stop asking another of their favorites, Romney, to run for a third time. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who are courting these same donors, now must explain to them why they would be superior to Bush.
And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who Bush mentored earlier in his political career, must determine if he will run for president without some of his donors and other supporters in the Sunshine State who will back the more experienced Bush.
"Marco has a lot of respect for Governor Bush, and believes he would be a formidable candidate. However, Marco's decision on whether to run for President or re-election will be based on where he can best achieve his agenda to restore the American Dream — not on who else might be running," Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant tells NBC News.
A run by Bush, who has strong support in the party's establishment wing and experience as a former governor, also is likely to placate GOP officials who had been asking Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Rep. Paul Ryan to run to ensure a strong establishment figure is in the race.
Speaking of Bush, David Beightol, a Washington lobbyist who was a major donor for Romney in 2012, said, "he's the guy with the talent … and I think he'll win."
Bush also poses a challenge for Tea Party and conservative activists who viewed his brother and father as too moderate and don't want a fourth presidential term for a member of the Bush clan. With his announcement, these conservatives now have a few months to attack Bush and show that the winner of the GOP primary must be anti-immigration reform and very emphatic about shrinking the size of government. Bush has said publicly he does not want to run in such an environment and could still ultimately decide he does not want to start a formal campaign if he concludes either that he will lose or be forced to shift strongly to the right, as Romney did in 2012.
"Jeb is a very good moderate Democrat," conservative talk show host Mark Levin told the Washington Examiner earlier this month, urging Bush not to run. "He's very boring. He doesn't elicit excitement and energy outside a very small circle of wealthy corporatists and GOP Beltway operatives. Time to move on.
More conservative Republicans are likely to have plenty of other choices, with Cruz, Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and several others strongly considering presidential runs.
Bush told NBC South Florida on Tuesday that he is going to "chill out" until the start of next year, when he will begin to test to see if his message resonates with voters.
"I'm really kind of focused on Christmas right now to be honest with you. I haven't had much time to go Christmas shopping and do the things that I want to do for my family," he said.