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In Early Stages, Jeb Bush Runs to the Middle, Shuns Some Conservative Stances

Jeb Bush is running the kind of centrist campaign he promised, taking moderate stands on issues like gay marriage and avoiding overt appeals to the right wing of the Republican Party.
(FILES) In this November 20, 2014 file photo, Former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush prior to speaking at the 2014 National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, DC. Bush announced January 6, 2015 on Facebook that he is launching a leadership Political Action Committee (PAC) called "Right to Rise" as he explores the possibility of running for president in 2016. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB / FILESSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty ImagesSAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images

In the early stages of his likely presidential run, Jeb Bush is running the kind of centrist campaign he promised, taking moderate stands on issues like gay marriage and avoiding overt appeals to the right wing of the Republican Party.

Last month, before announcing that he was formally exploring a White House bid, Bush had said that if he became a candidate, he would not bow to the most conservative parts of the GOP. He implied that Mitt Romney, whom Bush endorsed during the 2012 campaign, had gone too far in appeasing conservatives.

So far, Bush is living up that to pledge. Unlike many of the other leading 2016 Republican candidates, Bush recently announced he would not attend a January 24 forum in Des Moines that is sponsored by Steve King, the Iowa GOP congressman who is one of the strongest opponents of granting legal status to undocumented immigrants. After gay marriages started in Florida this week, Bush urged fellow Republicans to respect court rulings that have legalized same-sex unions, issuing a statement that downplayed the fact that the candidate opposes such unions himself.

On the website for the political action committee he launched this week, Bush highlighted his stances on education and energy, avoiding more popular conservative causes like reforming or gutting the IRS.

“It’s fair to say he's running to the middle, I just think that's who he is,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “I'd advise any candidate to be true to themselves and let the chips fall where they may. Candidates always get in trouble when they try to be something they are not.”

To be sure, Bush is a strong conservative on a number of issues. He supports repealing the Affordable Care Act, expanding the use of school vouchers and charter schools, and imposing greater limits on abortion rights.

Bush’s approach, at least at the start of his candidacy, seems to acknowledge that Tea Party activists and other more conservative Republicans will oppose some of his stances, and he is trying to get them to accommodate his views, as opposed to Bush appeasing them. He seems eager to confront his opponents on some issues, as Bush has repeatedly defended Common Core, a kind of finger-in-the-eye to the many conservatives who oppose the education standards.

And there is one obvious sign Bush is likely to continue this approach: the presence of Mike Murphy on his campaign team. Murphy, a well-known figure in the party who was the chief strategist for John McCain's 2000 campaign, has long been one of the loudest voices of change within the Republican Party.

In 2011, Murphy publicly warned that his one-time client, Romney, was making a mistake in attacking rival Rick Perry for being too soft on the issue of illegal immigration. This strategy, Murphy predicted, would eventually be “a great wedge issue for President Obama to beat up the Republican nominee with.” Murphy was right: Obama won overwhelmingly among Latino voters on Election Day in 2012.

Two years later, Murphy, again breaking with many in his party, joined a group of Republicans signing a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage.

Now, the consultant is part of a small circle of longtime advisers to Bush who are running a campaign that seems intent on creating a more moderate Republican Party.

This approach has a major risk: it could make Bush so toxic to the conservative wing of the party that he can’t win. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, two other Republicans who are competing for Bush to be the favorite of more moderate Republicans, are taking a less confrontational approach with conservatives. Christie and Walker are attending King’s event, even if they are likely to avoid the congressman’s more controversial rhetoric on immigration.

Other likely 2016 candidates, like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, were once supporters of Common Core but have backtracked.