“My message to conservatives has been: this is the conservative Bush,” Weber said in a phone interview. “I remember when his brother first ran — and he was a fine president. But at the time, most conservatives around the country said it’s too bad because Jeb is the real conservative in the family. I’m reminding my friends about those conversations.”
In recent weeks, Weber said he and other Bush allies have been informally meeting with skeptical leaders on the right to talk through Bush’s gubernatorial record, touting his work on “educational choice and taxes and spending.” Their goal is to scrape away the notion that Bush is a political moderate — a notion that has become a barnacle on his potential candidacy.
Later this month, Bush is scheduled to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. The speech will be one of his first direct overtures to activists since he first began exploring a presidential campaign late last year.
“The idea that he should somehow now be branded as a moderate Republican, that’s just not true, that’s not who he’s been,” Weber said.
During Romney’s campaigns for the White House in 2008 and 2012, Weber served as a senior policy hand, organizing meetings with think-tank specialists on foreign and domestic issues, and keeping tabs on conservative concerns.
But when Romney flirted with a 2016 campaign earlier this year, Weber took to the airwaves to throw cold water on Romney’s return. “I’m not happy, frankly, with the way he’s chosen to reenter presidential politics,” Weber said in a January interview with Bloomberg Politics.
That public nudge of Romney, then seen as Bush’s chief rival, was appreciated by Bush’s camp, according to Republicans familiar with their thinking.
Weber said he and Bush have been in contact since last year. After reading of Bush’s interest in a possible campaign, Weber e-mailed him with encouragement. Weber said he went on to have several talks with Bush and his political confidants.
A Bush aide said since he is not formally in the race, an official policy team is not yet assembled. And Weber emphasized that he does not have any sort of prescribed role. “I’m willing to do whatever they need me to do,” he said of his possible title or duties.
Weber, who served in Congress from 1981 to 1993, is currently a partner at Mercury, a Washington-based consulting firm. A longtime political lieutenant to Newt Gingrich in the House, he went on to co-found Empower America, a conservative advocacy group, after he left office, and work as a lobbyist.
“It’s a tough time for me to make a decision because there are a lot of potential Republican candidates who I know and respect,” Weber said, citing Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
In spite of those relationships, Weber said he is convinced Bush’s “optimistic vision” gives Republicans their best chance of winning back the presidency in 2016.
“I don’t hear anyone else with Bush’s level of clarity on what Republicans can do to shape the future,” he said. “I and others are not looking only for the most articulate opponent of President Obama.”