As GOP candidates vie for Bush backing, Jeb hangs back

December 24, 2011

First Jeb Jr. endorsed Jon Huntsman Jr. His brother, George P., praised Rick Perry.

Last week, George H.W. Bush made news when he came out for Mitt Romney.

George W. says he won’t be throwing his weight behind anyone in the Republican presidential nominating fight, although someone close to the former president said he has taken calls from a few candidates and dispensed only “very generic” advice when asked.

Which leaves Jeb. Sr. — the elusive endorsement that seems most coveted by the candidates.

The current presidential election cycle is the first since 1976 to be taking place without a Bush in a statewide or national office or seeking a national office. Yet the Bush family primary — a behind-the-scenes drama that has been playing out in the GOP contest for months — is taking on as much significance as ever.

To win an endorsement even from the most obscure of the Bushes — George W. siblings Marvin and Doro have backed Romney — is to share in a political brand that bestows legitimacy and open doors.

Much of the family’s vaunted fundraising network is either holding back or dispersing itself among various campaigns, depleting its influence as a singular force to pick a winner. So the major candidates are left to jockey for the next best thing: personal support.

Dynastic boost

Many Americans may see the Bushes as a relic of political history, a dynasty that boasted two former presidents and a former big-state governor but lost its luster when W. left the White House with rock-bottom approval ratings amid an economic collapse.

Even among some hard-core conservatives, the name evokes bad memories, such as the 1990 tax deal in which Bush 41 broke his “read my lips” tax pledge, or the costly 2003 Medicare prescription drug legislation pushed by Bush 43 and cited by tea party activists as an example of Republicans losing their way.

Yet to Republicans who aspire to retake the White House and the legions of party activists who have worked for a Bush at one point or another, the family remains a symbol of political success.

And the dynasty’s imprimatur, like the Kennedy family backing (ultimately secured by Barack Obama) that was courted during the 2008 Democratic primary, brings clear advantages.

Four decades of politicking — dating from George H.W. and Barbara Bush’s meticulous file card system to catalogue names and addresses — has spawned the GOP’s most extensive network of activists and supporters still loyal to a single family.

“There are so many innumerable donors, activists, fundraisers and volunteers who have done so much to help George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush get elected,” said Florida-based lawyer Justin Sayfie, a former Jeb Bush aide who was a top bundler for George W. Bush and now backs Romney. “There’s a long-standing loyalty factor among Republicans.”

Bush loyalists said the family has maintained its political networks. But in 2008 and now in 2012, the Bushes have refrained from directing donors to help certain White House contenders.

“They respected our right to make our own choices,” said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, who raised money for 41 and 43 and is helping Perry.

Last week’s support from the eldest Bush came as a surprise to Romney aides. The former Massachusetts governor had courted the 87-year-old former president — spending an hour at the family home in Houston recently talking politics over coffee and cookies — but did not directly ask for his backing.

Romney already boasted some Bush connections, including the support of John Sununu, Bush 41’s onetime chief of staff. His campaign pollster, Neil Newhouse, held that position for Jeb’s Florida campaigns.

Bush Sr. delivered the news to his hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, calling Romney “the best choice for us.” He also took swipes at two Romney rivals, saying that Perry “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere” and that “I’m not [Newt Gingrich’s] biggest advocate.”

Romney aides were pleased with the news coverage that resulted from the elder Bush’s comments, tying Romney tightly to the Bush family patriarch. Bush Sr., a war hero who devotes time to charity work, is widely popular with the bulk of GOP voters being sought by Romney, notwithstanding dissatisfaction among the party’s conservative base during his presidency. “He’s a wise man who people listen to,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire adviser to Romney’s campaign.

The Gingrich campaign did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Perry, Ray Sullivan, said the governor “has the highest opinion of President George H.W. Bush, his heroic military service, leadership and many years of public service.”

Sullivan added that Perry “has solid, long-standing and friendly relationships with both presidents Bush and former governor Jeb Bush and speaks with them and sees them from time to time.”

‘They come courting’

Jeb, it seems, is the biggest prize of the Bush primary. At 58, he is viewed by many close to the family as the next President Bush.

The two-term Florida governor has spent much of the past year deflecting entreaties to jump into the race from party elders. His suitors thought that his ability to deliver a big battleground state and his appeal among Hispanic voters (he speaks fluent Spanish and his wife is Mexican American) would more than make up for any Bush fatigue among voters.

Meantime, the candidates have seen Jeb Bush as a key figure in winning Florida’s crucial Jan. 31 primary — calling and meeting with him when they can.

“They come courting,” Bush said in an August phone interview with The Washington Post from his Miami office.

The former governor did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Several people close to Bush said they felt he was now less inclined to endorse in the primary.

He is unlikely to opt against his father’s choice of Romney. Yet Bush has publicly warned the candidates to tone down hard-line rhetoric on illegal immigration, and Romney has used a particularly tough tone on this issue to attack rivals from the right.

Romney has told reporters in recent weeks that he had met with Bush to discuss immigration policy. The former Florida governor will co-host a summit in Miami for Hispanic conservatives in late January, just days before the state’s primary.

Bush seems content at the moment playing the role of an above-the-fray policy guru. In a Dec. 19 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Capitalism and the Right to Rise,” he blasted government interference in the free market and even acknowledged having “succumbed” at times as governor to frequent demands that he “do something” to respond to problems perhaps better left to work themselves out.

The piece generated more speculation that Bush might be pondering a last-minute entry into the presidential race — speculation that makes his endorsement only more desirable.

Bush’s silence in the primary and his relatives’ decisions could reflect a family strategy to exert influence and hedge its bets — leaving the one member of his generation who may yet find himself on a presidential ticket nominally neutral.

In an August interview with Sayfie, his former aide who publishes the Florida politics site SayfieReview.com, Bush left himself room to play a role.

“I don’t know if endorsements matter, but this is a hugely important election,” he said, adding later: “Given the nature of how important this is, I might get involved.”

He said he was looking for a nominee who would avoid “low-hanging fruit” attacks on Obama and one with the character to withstand the scrutiny of a campaign.

“We want a nominee that’s hopeful and optimistic but also has a titanium spine,” Bush said.

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