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Jeb Bush: GOP Nominee Should Be Willing to 'Lose the Primary to Win the General'

"I don't know if I'd be a good candidate or a bad one," Bush told an audience of CEOs at a conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.
Wilfredo Lee / AP

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday said that for a Republican to win a presidential election, the 2016 nominee has to be wiling to "lose the primary to win the general."

"I don't know if I'd be a good candidate or a bad one," Bush told an audience of CEOs at a conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. "I kinda know how a Republican can win, whether it's me or somebody else -- and it has to be much more uplifting, much more positive, much more wiling to be, 'lose the primary to win the general' without violating your principles. It's not an easy task, to be honest with you."

Bush also said the incoming GOP Congress needs "to actually show in an adult like way that we can govern. Lead."

In a wide-ranging interview with Gerald Seib, the Journal's DC bureau chief, Bush repeated his assertion that he's thinking about running for president, and said that one central question for him to answer in the coming months was: "Do I have the skills to do it in a way that lifts people's spirits and not get sucked into the vortex?"

Seib followed up to Bush's comments about the primary, asking: "Are the things that you need to do to win a Republican nomination contrary to the things you need to do to win a general election?"

Bush shot back: "Well, frankly, no one really knows that because it hasn't been tried recently."

It was a veiled shot at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who tacked hard right on issues like immigration to get through the 2012 presidential primary.

Bush went on to quickly change course and say he thought Romney would have been a great president.

Bush's comments on the 2016 contest were just one part of a wide-ranging conversation that saw Bush lay out a list of policy priorities that could easily become a platform for a campaign.

On his list of key issues: Tax reform, an energy policy focused on North America, immigration reform, educational transformation and entitlement reform.

Bush said he believes immigration is actually the easiest of those problems to tackle -- and he came close to warning Republicans not to overreact to the president's executive order on immigration.

"So hopefully, the Republicans rather than have their heads explode with the president executive actions," he said, before making an abrupt segue, "which I think -- are, um, I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say that they're unconstitutional - let's call them extraconstitutional - they're a a stretch, they're a stretch way beyond what the executive authority by any other president."

He then defended his own father, who also took executive action to allow some undocumented immigrants to stay in the country.

"The argument that well, Reagan did it, my dad did it, well, they did it on a much smaller scale, they did it with the consent of Congress, there's a lot of differences between what happened back then 30 years ago and what happened now."

The comments served to underscore the criticism he might face in a potential GOP primary. But when he talked about the issue broadly, he turned personal -- and highlighted how he might appeal to general electorate.

He referenced his eldest granddaughter, Georgia Helena Walker Bush, who he joked his family has nicknamed "41".

"Georgia represents the new America that I know," he said. "The new America is an America that doesn't have hyphens. It's an America where your work and your effort is your definition, not some identity in political form."

He said that his granddaughter would be a quadra-hyphenated "Canadian-Iraqi-Mexican-Texas-American" because her mother is a Canadian born to Iraqi parents, her grandmother is Mexican, her father was born in Florida and her grandfather is from Texas.

"That is the America that we should aspire to, not the one where we're dividing ourselves up to find where we're different but the fact that you're from a different place or you've got a different origin is totally irrelevant," Bush said.

-MSNBC's Kasie Hunt