Jeb Bush is suddenly the Republicans’ 2016 presidential front-runner, thanks to Mitt Romney’s decision Friday to forgo the race – but skeptical conservatives and public wariness about Bush’s family make him highly vulnerable.
The former Florida governor leads most Republican preference polls, though not by much. At recent gatherings of Republicans, conservatives voiced concern that another Bush would mean another center-right candidate as well as a sense that the party was stuck in the past.
Romney flirted with running for the nomination for three weeks. He had met with donors Jan. 9 at the New York City office of Woody Johnson, owner of the National Football League’s New York Jets. Romney also activated his network of supporters and contributors and appeared before the Republican National Committee in San Diego.
But Friday, his effort ended as abruptly as it began. In a call to supporters from a New York hotel, the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee told them, “It is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee.”
“He said he thought he could win, but to get there requires a path with a lot of issues,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who was on the call.
The call was short. Romney read a statement, then ad-libbed, Rath said. “He made it clear. He said there was no looking back, no Plan B, no brokered convention,” he said. “He was done.”
Romney didn’t mention any other candidate, but Bush loyalists rejoiced. Many big donors were torn between the two establishment titans.
“It’s great news for Jeb Bush,” said Brian Ballard, Romney’s 2012 Florida finance chairman. “He’s clearly now the favorite with the establishment wing of the party.”
Ballard has spoken to Romney backers in recent weeks. “He made the right choice for his party and his family,” Ballard said. A Bush-Romney battle “would have hurt our chances in the general election.”
Bush is no shoo-in. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and possibly Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will vie for the mainstream Republican vote. Bush is seen as having the financial and political network to overwhelm his rivals, but it’s unknown how effective a candidate he'll be; he last ran for office in 2002.
Also lurking are concerns that another Bush on the Republican ticket suggests the party is stuck in another era. Since 1980, Bush’s father or brother has been on six Republican presidential tickets. The party has a growing roster of potential 2016 candidates a generation younger; at the Iowa Freedom Summit last week, the biggest crowd-pleaser was the 47-year-old Walker.
In addition, Christie and Perry have strong ties to the same big donors as Bush. Christie is well-known to Wall Street contributors, and Perry was governor of Texas for 14 years.
Bush’s biggest obstacle could be the party’s diehard conservative wing, which has been waiting years to nominate a candidate from its ranks. It’s rarely been enthusiastic about the Bushes, seeing the family as too willing to accommodate more moderate policies and politics.
Bush’s challenges were evident in a Jan. 21-26 Loras College Poll released Friday by the Dubuque, Iowa, school. Nearly one in five Republicans said they could never vote for Bush, a higher total than any potential candidate received.
Nationally, Bush also didn’t have a strong showing.
In last month’s McClatchy-Marist poll, with Romney not included, Bush was the leader, though only with 16 percent. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a conservative favorite who won the 2008 Iowa caucus, was next at 12 percent.
Bush, who met privately with Romney last week in Utah, hailed Romney’s decision on Facebook, calling him a “patriot.”
“I join many in hoping his days of serving our nation and our party are not over,” Bush wrote. “I look forward to working with him to ensure all Americans have a chance to rise up.”
Three gatherings of Republicans this month illustrated Romney’s task. Congress returned to Washington, and while party lawmakers talked about their respect for the 2012 nominee, they were reluctant to embrace him or encourage another run.
At the same time, the Republican National Committee, the 168 insiders who make up the party’s governing ranks, met in San Diego.
Romney appeared on Jan. 16 at a reception on an aircraft carrier. This would be the test of his strength, said the insiders. He spoke for about 15 minutes, wife Ann by his side, and told the crowd, “We need to stand for safety and for opportunity for all people regardless of the neighborhood they come from. And we have to stand for helping lift people out of poverty.”
It was just the latest example of a newfound voice inside the GOP that it has to expand its message to attract voters for whom party has had little appeal.
But there was a telling moment when it was over. Instead of mingling with the hundreds of influential Republicans gathered there, he and Ann exited immediately.
More sobering news came a week later, when prospective candidates gathered in Iowa, the nation’s first caucus state, for what was billed as the campaign’s unofficial kickoff. Romney did not attend, was rarely mentioned, and Walker emerged as a possible mainstream favorite.
Romney can now assume the kind of role he’s enjoyed since his 2012 run, the savvy, battle-tested elder statesman of the party. Sure enough, he ended his six-minute statement to supporters Friday in statesmanlike fashion.
“I believe a Republican winning back the White House is essential for our country,” he said. “And I'll do whatever I can to make that happen.”