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Jeb Bush to meet with Southern Baptist leader

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is reaching out to evangelical leaders as he considers a 2016 presidential run, and in early May, he will meet privately with Russell Moore, one of the country’s most prominent Southern Baptists.

Moore, a frequent presence on television and at theological conferences, heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has more than 16 million members.

Moore and an aide to Bush have confirmed the session, which will take place at Bush’s office in Miami. Bush, who has played down the idea that he is exploring a campaign, asked Moore to meet with him earlier this year.

“We’ll talk about the concerns of evangelicals,” Moore said in a phone interview. “He is a good man, and I am not surprised there is a lot of conversation about him.”

Moore pointedly said he does not endorse candidates, and that he is happy to counsel any potential contender, Democrat or Republican.

One topic expected to be on the agenda is comprehensive immigration reform, which Moore and Bush have encouraged. In March, Moore co-wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal with Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, urging Congress to take action and praising immigrants.

“The immigrant community is brimming with hard-working, entrepreneurial, family-oriented men and women who yearn for freedom,” Moore and Reed wrote. “Others violate our laws, committing crime and living off the system. As Christians and conservatives, we have had to ask ourselves how to move forward.”

Speaking Sunday in Texas, Bush also had kind words for immigrants, including for some who cross the border illegally. “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family,” he said.

Richard Land, Moore’s predecessor, was a longtime power broker in Republican presidential primaries, and in 2012, Land endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Moore, 42, uses less aggressive rhetoric on social issues than Land, and has published documents asking Baptists to “love your gay and lesbian neighbors.”

Bush, a son and brother of presidents, was raised Episcopalian. Encouraged by his wife, Columba, he converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1990s.

In recent weeks, many of the GOP’s insiders and financiers have attempted to draft Bush into the 2016 presidential race, concerned that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s political standing has been damaged by the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal. Last month, Mark DeMoss, a former adviser to Romney who is well connected with evangelicals, said that he would help Bush — but that if Bush doesn’t run, he will sit out the 2016 campaign.

“I think he is a talented, credible, thinking leader,” DeMoss said. “The question is, how much appetite is there in the Republican Party and in the general electorate for that?”

Bush said Sunday he remains undecided and remains wary of the “vortex” of mudslinging in national politics.