COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina has been good to the Bushes.
This is where George W. Bush vanquished John McCain on his way to clinching the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Once in the White House, Bush nurtured his family’s strong ties to the state by making frequent visits here and tapping local supporters for ambassadorships.
But as Jeb Bush considers his own presidential campaign, deep-red South Carolina — which he visited on Monday — offers a case study in how dramatically the political waters have shifted since his older brother and father entered the White House.
When the Bush network was at its zenith here, this state’s current Republican power players were relative nobodies. Gov. Nikki Haley was balancing the books at her mother’s clothing and jewelry boutique, Sen. Tim Scott was sitting on the Charleston County Council and state GOP chairman Matt Moore was finishing high school.
The Republican Party here and elsewhere has become more strident and restless, with new power centers and less certainty, presenting a candidate like Bush with fresh challenges in navigating the Republican primaries. Some of South Carolina’s leading GOP strategists and elected officials said the former Florida governor will have to nimbly adapt.
“Jeb can remake that brand — you can have a new Coke,” said Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina congressman who has been talking with Bush. “He knows he’s not entitled to flip a switch and he knows he’s got to present his take on the Bush brand and see if the solutions orientation is what the electorate wants.”
Bush visited this early primary state to deliver the University of South Carolina’s winter commencement address. He received an honorary doctorate and spoke to about 14,000 people, including about 2,000 graduates.
Bush’s speech was apolitical, but there were clues to how he might campaign for president in the message to graduates.
“You don’t have to follow the pattern,” Bush said. “You can do what you want to do. In fact, life is a lot better if you can find more reasons to do your own things.” He later exhorted, “Don’t be afraid to shake things up.”
Bush, who has said he wants to be able to run for president “joyfully,” expounded on the theme Monday: “If you are able to find joy in life whenever and wherever you can, I can promise you this — joy will find you.”
Since George W. Bush’s 2000 primary victory, South Carolina’s Republican electorate has become decidedly more libertarian, with fiscal conservatives demanding purity from candidates and enjoying a louder voice in state politics than social conservatives.
“Fourteen years is a lifetime in politics,” Moore said. “The party is getting younger. We’ve had a huge influx of libertarian-minded Republicans. Any candidate who wants to be successful in South Carolina has to find a way to connect across that broad swath of the Republican Party.”
Immigration is a hot issue in South Carolina. A pathway to citizenship, which Bush proudly supports, could be a no-go in the 2016 primary. GOP activists also are opposed to the Common Core education standards, which Bush advocates.
Warren Tompkins, a longtime South Carolina strategist who steered George Bush’s 2000 campaign and has been talking with Jeb Bush’s advisers about a 2016 run, said the state’s politics are “fundamentally different” now.
“We’re much more conservative than we were in 2000,” Tompkins said. “There’s a perception that [Jeb Bush] is a moderate. Here, we’re a classic three legs of a stool primary electorate: you’ve got to be right on social issues, on fiscal issues and on foreign affairs. You’ve got to navigate all those waters. His challenge will be to prove that he’s fundamentally sound and in sync with us here.”
Bush will try to do just that by writing an e-book, to be published early next year, which aides said will attempt to define his eight years as a governor and detail his record on many domestic policy issues.
Former governor David Beasley said South Carolina primary voters “will be open to a conservative like Jeb. But Jeb’s going to have to answer to some of these issues, particularly with immigration, which is very volatile in Republican primary circles. He’s going to have to play that issue very carefully and straightforwardly with great confidence.”
Bush has said that if he runs, he will defend his beliefs and not “get sucked into other people’s agendas,” which he thought hurt 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. “You have to be true to who you are,” he said last weekend to WPLG-TV in Miami.
In South Carolina, Bush enjoys one significant advantage over potential rivals: his family’s deep political network, which was on display here Monday.
The University of South Carolina has long been friendly to the Bushes, with several family friends on the Board of Visitors. George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush and George W. Bush have received honorary degrees. Florida real estate investor Ned Siegel, a Bush fundraiser and former ambassador to the Bahamas, received an honorary doctorate at Monday’s event.
“South Carolina has always been Bush country,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a leading Romney supporter in 2012. “But I think many in the party might have some fatigue over another Bush on the ballot.”
As Tompkins said of George W. Bush’s 2000 team: “We’re a little longer in the tooth than we used to be.”
But Jeb Bush has been cultivating ties to the new generation of political leaders, including Haley. Before she was elected governor in 2010, Haley sought advice from Bush on governing. He dispatched adviser Sally Bradshaw to South Carolina to counsel Haley and her team.
Since then, Haley has reached out regularly to Bush on policy matters, especially education reform, and she considers him a mentor. On Monday afternoon, Bush visited with Haley at the Governor’s Mansion — his only political meeting of the trip.
In the fall, Bush helped raise money for Haley’s reelection and held events in South Carolina for her. Haley’s advisers called Bush her most effective surrogate.
David Wilkins, whom Bush appointed ambassador to Canada after Wilkins chaired the 2000 and 2004 campaigns in the state, said “there’s a strong group of people who supported George W. Bush who would like to rally quickly their support for Governor Jeb Bush.”
Katon Dawson chaired the state GOP during George W. Bush’s presidency and said he is proud of how much attention the 43rd president paid to the state. “I remember other states saying, ‘Could I just get Air Force One to fly over us?’ and we had him landing here every week,” Dawson said.
But Dawson, who is advising Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s efforts here, said Jeb Bush would have to rebuild the family network: “As they say down South, there have been a lot of waters underneath that bridge.”