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Democrats seem poised to hand Hillary Clinton their party’s nomination without much of a fight. But Republicans aren’t giving any kind of coronation to their party’s 2016 candidate with a famous last name: Jeb Bush.
With several candidates appearing this week at both the annual Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington, D.C. and a meeting of the anti-tax Club for Growth in Palm Beach, there were clear, obvious signs of hesitancy from influential Republicans about Bush.
On stage at CPAC, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham listed issues where she said Bush and Hillary Clinton have similar ideas, concluding the two should “run on the same ticket.” In a question and answer session with Bush at the Florida event, Club for Growth president David McIntosh told him, “some of your federal policy provisions seem to be more pro-government than what you did as governor,” according to Politico. (The Club for Growth event was open only to “invited” reporters.)
Wisconsin Scott Walker, another likely 2016 candidate, was cheered loudly during his speech at CPAC, with some in the audience shouting “Run, Scott, Run.” Many conservatives say there is already a race to be the “anti-Bush” candidate and that Walker currently leads that contest.
“I want to see a good race. I have told donors, very good friends of mine, not, not to endorse,” said Larry Kudlow, a former Reagan administration official and CNBC television personality who attended CPAC.
He added, “Scott’s doing great, Jeb Bush is doing great, but it’s way too early” for the party to mobilize behind a handful of candidates.
“If what happens is the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the president is, then he’s definitely the front-runner,” Christie said.
Bush has already won the backing of many of the party’s donors, as well as popular Republican figures like former Secretary of State James Baker. At the same time, other key voices in the party, particularly those who are more conservative, say they are not adamantly opposed to Bush but want to see a competitive primary in which several candidates get the chance to challenge him.
And there is also an emerging contingent in the GOP that is strongly opposed to Bush, viewing him both as too moderate and as unelectable because of his last name.
“How many of you are skeptical of another Bush term?” Ingraham asked the crowd of more than 1,000 conservative activists at CPAC, getting lots of applause.
Mocking a comment Bush made recently, she added, “Do you really believe that we should repopulate Detroit with foreign workers in order to spur an economic revival?”
Bush seems aware of the nervousness about him within the party. He is taking active steps to court conservatives. This week alone, Bush not only attended the Club for Growth and CPAC events, but was also interviewed by Hugh Hewitt, an influential conservative radio talk show host.
Bush, considered to the left of Walker and other candidates because of his generally pro-immigration rhetoric, is emphasizing his conservatism on other issues, such as working to limit affirmative action and cutting taxes while serving as the governor of Florida.
The former governor is also downplaying his support of the controversial Common Core education standards, arguing that he wants each state to have educational policies that challenge students and noting that states do not have to adopt those in Common Core.
“They called me Veto Corleone,” Bush bragged both at the Florida event on Thursday and then again at CPAC on Friday, noting all of his vetoes of spending bills during his tenure as Florida governor from 1999 to 2007.
Hewitt, in his interview, pressed Bush on the impact of his brother and father’s tenures as president, asking if the former governor would be “overly cautious about using force for fear of having a third Bush war occur.” Some national security hawks in the GOP say the U.S. should be open to using ground forces to fight ISIS.
“I don’t think there’s anything that relates to what my dad did or what my brother did that would compel me to think one way or the other,” Bush said in response.
The most obvious sign of hesitancy about Bush is the large line-up of candidates considering running against him. This is in sharp contrast to Clinton, who has effectively cleared the Democratic field, with many in her party who would like to be president opting against challenging her.
Walker, leading in polls in Iowa, seems particularly undaunted by Bush’s early strength in fundraising. At CPAC, he seemed very confident, bragging of his confrontations with unions in Wisconsin and arguing that those fights show he can take on ISIS as president. (After the speech, Walker’s spokesman had to backtrack from the remark, which some criticized as likening liberals in Wisconsin to ISIS fighters.)
About a dozen other Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, are all also very likely to enter the race, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence are leaving the door open to campaigns as well.
“If what happens is the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the president is, then he’s definitely the front-runner,” Christie said at CPAC, when asked about Bush. “If the people of the United States decide to pick the next president of the United States and they want someone who looks them in the eye, is one of them and connects with them, I’ll do okay.”