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Here’s something that should worry Jeb Bush backers

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens to his introduction before speaking at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, November 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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There's a line in Peter Baker's outstanding profile of Jeb and George W. Bush that stood out to me. "In political settings, he sometimes seems to eye the exit, calculating how to get from here to there with the least fuss," writes Baker of Jeb. "'Former President Bush is much more instantly gregarious, a bigger personality,' said Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first White House press secretary. 'When he walks into a room, he just takes it over, by style and by charm. Jeb is more intellectual, more pensive and more articulate.'"

The essence of Baker's story is that, yes, Jeb and George W. are brothers but, no, they aren't the same person or even all that alike.  (It's a great piece and very much worth your time.) But for me, the piece set off alarm bells about the way in which even the strongest allies of Bushworld described the former Florida governor, who seems to be moving aggressively toward the 2016 presidential race.

The image of Jeb in Baker's piece -- and lots of other previous profiles during his time as governor -- is of someone far more comfortable governing than campaigning, someone simply not good at or comfortable with the sort of hail-fellow-well-met part of politics. So what, you ask? After eight years of someone in the White House who Republicans believe was only a campaigner, why wouldn't the opposite of that hold real appeal to the GOP electorate?

In theory, yes. But, here's the problem for Jeb: The first three states in the nominating process -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- are all retail states. Meaning, they are small enough for a candidate to visit every corner of the state -- and voters in those states expect them to visit every corner of the state. That's lots of handshaking, baby-kissing and turnip-festival (or whatever) attending.  It's sweating it out at the Iowa State Fair over the white-hot grill at the Pork Producers tent and acting like this is the greatest moment of your life. Tramping through the snow in the North Country of New Hampshire when the high for the day is 5 degrees.

You get the idea. It's not all big policy speeches and Lincoln-Douglas style debates with your competitors. It's a long slog of hand-to-hand political combat, the sort that even Bush supporters make clear he does not enjoy and likely will not take part in.

There's some evidence in Bush's own career of how his lack of a knack for retail politics has hurt him. In 1994, Bush, making his first run for office, was considered a favorite against sitting Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. But, Chiles was an expert retail politician; he rose to prominence in Florida by walking the entire state in his 1970 bid for governor.  Despite 1994 being a terrific year for Republicans nationally, Bush somehow lost that race to Chiles 51 percent to 49 percent. Obviously retail politics wasn't the only reason for that defeat, but Chiles played up his own connections to the roots of the state -- he was known for referring to himself in that race as the "he-coon who always walks before the light of day" -- and it absolutely had an impact.  (Bush won the governorship in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002 as Florida's massive population growth and demographic changes made the possibility of running a retail race impossible.)

Now, the Jeb Bush of 2002 -- the last time he ran a serious political race -- and the Jeb Bush of 2015 may well not be the same person.  And, the intervening 13 years have seen changes in the way politicians communicate with potential voters that should play into Bush's longtime reputation as an early-adopter of technology.  But, it's hard to imagine that Bush has turned into the sort of politician that Baker describes George W. as. And, technology still hasn't replaced direct contact with voters in the first three states that will play an outsized role in picking the next Republican presidential nominee.

Retail politicking may not matter as much as it once did in the presidential primary process. But it still matters. And that might well pose a problem for Jeb.

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