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jeb Bush has raised tens of millions of dollars, and his 2016 rivals are already conceding to him the title of early fundraising champion in the race.
By touting his record of tax and spending cuts as governor of Florida, he’s softened the opposition to him from some hard-right conservatives, who viewed Bush as way too moderate when he first entered the race. Bush’s impressive success in winning support from top GOP operatives, donors and party luminaries like former Secretary of State James Baker effectively pushed Mitt Romney out of the 2016 race and has deeply wounded the prospects of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But after four months as an almost candidate, Jeb Bush is not having nearly the success that Hillary Clinton is on the Democratic side in terms of establishing himself as the clear front-runner in the field. Nor is he the equivalent of his brother George W. Bush, who had won the endorsements of six governors, six senators, and 64 members of the House by April 1999, according to FiveThirtyEight. Jeb Bush has so far been endorsed by just five members of Congress, all from Florida.
Bush has a clear path to capturing the GOP nomination as a more moderate Republican: Win the same voters who backed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney four years later. But he has three major challenges.
First, there are deep doubts within the Republican Party about whether Bush's last name is too problematic in a general election, as Republican elites are closely examining polls showing him trailing Clinton in head-to-head match-ups.
A Jeb Bush-Hillary Clinton matchup, some Republicans worry, would turn into a contest between the legacies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the latter whom left office with historically low approval ratings.
“Jeb is nimble and intellectually curious. He’s quick on his feet, informed and more conservative than some critics on the right give him credit for,” said Guy Benson, the political editor of the conservative website Townhall and a Fox News contributor.
But Benson, who met privately with Bush earlier this year, added, “the dynasty or last name issue remains a real vulnerability. I suspect assuaging those concerns among a significant number of voters will prove to be a complicated task for the governor.”
Secondly, Wisconsin Scott Walker and Florida Gov. Marco Rubio are very popular figures among elite Republicans. Walker and Rubio have emerged as strong contenders to Bush, according to top GOP officials, not just because of doubts about the ex-Florida governor, but because those two are viewed by both moderate Republicans and conservatives as capable of winning the presidency and doing the job well if elected.
Party officials say privately that Christie’s campaign is all but dead, and that there is little demand within the GOP for either Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to enter the race, even as both are flirting with runs. But Rubio and Walker are expected to remain viable challengers, making Bush a narrow front-runner if he is one at all.
“Instead of the race being Mitt Romney and everybody else, there are more attractive options for mainstream Republican voters than Jeb Bush,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
Third, Bush’s path to victory is also being blocked by changes in campaign finance law, which have allowed mega donors to effectively bankroll entire campaigns.
Jeb Bush has won the support of many of the so-called bundlers who backed his brother and Romney in 2012, people who not only give large campaign donations themselves but also organize their friends to give as well. When George W. Bush ran in 2000, his success getting bundlers behind him stopped many potential rivals from entering the race. Kasich quit the 2000 race in July 1999, unable to match George W. Bush’s fundraising.
Many of Rubio’s one-time bundlers have defected to Jeb Bush, but it didn’t stop the Florida senator from running, in part because he can rely on some of his biggest donors to give millions to his super-PAC.
“His fundraising prowess is a significant advantage," said Katie Packer Gage, who was Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012, referring to Bush. “But keep in mind that Romney had far more distance between him and a much weaker field on the money front and was still nearly beaten.”
Bush’s challenges obscure some of his strengths. While there are doubts among conservatives about him because of his support for a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants and his past backing of the Common Core education stands, Bush is not precisely the 2016 version of Romney.
In elite GOP circles, there is considerably more enthusiasm for Bush than Romney, who won the nomination in a cycle in which key party officials kept unsuccessfully trying to draft other people into the race because they were dissatisfied with the former Massachusetts governor. Republicans believe that Bush’s connections to the Mexican-American community because of his wife and children make him a more viable candidate than Romney to win heavily-Latino states like Florida, at least if voters get past his last name.
House Speaker John Boehner Boehner was pointedly non-committal earlier this year when asked about third run from Romney, but repeatedly urged Bush to enter the race last year and has all but endorsed him already.
“Jeb can talk about the values of our party as good as anybody that we have,” Boehner said in an interview earlier this month with Bloomberg News, adding Bush had a “conservative governing record that’s exemplary” from his time in Florida.
And while Rubio and Walker are expected to have major donors behind them, Bush so far has headed off one of the biggest potential dangers: an organized campaign by major donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers to defeat him. The Koch brothers are very close to Walker, and if they opted to pump in several hundred million to back the Wisconsin governor, this would be a huge challenge for Bush.
But in the early stages of this race, the Kochs are signaling privately they prefer Walker, but are not adamantly opposed to Bush. In an interview with USA Today, Charles Koch said he was open to supporting Bush, Rubio, Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Adelson, according to a report in National Review, has been frustrated that Bush has not being heeding his advice and could opt for one of the other candidates, particularly Rubio. But it’s not yet clear if Adelson will bankroll an anti-Bush campaign, as he did in 2012, when he singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich in the race against Romney.