KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — A banner in the town square says “Happy 90th Barbara Bush.” Postcards read “Kennebunkport: 2 presidents, 1 town.” A local gift shop is selling unofficial Jeb Bush 2016 magnets.
In this coastal hamlet made famous by George H.W. Bush and his cigarette boat, it is hard to escape the Bush family — but Jeb Bush is trying hard to do so.
After festivities this weekend to celebrate his mother’s 90th birthday, Bush will jet overseas for a foreign-policy tour and then launch his 2016 presidential campaign 1,500 miles to the south, in Miami.
The iconic family compound here, called Walker’s Point, is a fitting metaphor for what has emerged as Jeb Bush’s central political challenge: how far to distance himself from his family’s political legacy.
The past month has brought into stark relief the fundamental dilemma posed by Bush’s lineage, even as his front-runner status fades. He repeatedly stumbled to answer questions about the now-unpopular Iraq war started by his brother and has been visibly conflicted about whether to embrace or play down the policies and reputations of his closest relatives.
He conceded last weekend to CBS that distancing himself from his brother George W. Bush “is not something I’m comfortable doing.”
But when asked last Tuesday by Fox News whether he’ll use his brother on the campaign trail, he said: “Absolutely. I will use my brother, my sister, every relative, every person I can.”
On paper, Jeb Bush’s record — two terms as governor of a large swing state with a conservative governing record — seems exactly what Republicans would want. But the party faithful are increasingly seeking younger, fresher candidates — they’re “Bushed out,” as Barbara Bush has told visitors here in recent years.
And so when Jeb Bush’s anticipated presidential bid begins June 15, he will seek to set himself apart from his brother and father — an effort that will form one of the abiding themes of the impending campaign, according to aides and close friends.
He will make his announcement at a Miami community college under the moniker of his nickname, leaving the surname behind. There probably won’t be “Bush” on the “Jeb 2016” campaign paraphernalia. On stage will be his Mexican-born wife, Columba, and their three grown children. Neither of Bush’s parents will attend the announcement, and aides won’t say whether any of his siblings will, either.
Later, his two sons — not his father or brother — are expected to play active and visible roles in the campaign.
Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush friend, said that polls have tightened because media attention is too focused on Bush’s family history and not on his record as Florida governor. “It’s about Bush, not Jeb,” he said.
But once people learn more about his time as governor, Cardenas said, “then it will become more about Jeb, not Bush.”
Bush has told voters repeatedly in recent months, “I have to show what’s in my heart” regarding his family. But he also said recently that a presidential run “can’t be about the past; it can’t be about my mom and dad, or my brother, who I love. It has to be about the ideas I believe in to move our country forward.”
Here in Kennebunkport, the prospect of another Bush in the White House intrigues local residents, many of whom say they don’t know George and Barbara’s second-oldest son that well.
Jeb Bush usually visits Maine once a year to see his parents, play early-morning rounds of golf and visit local haunts such as the HB Provisions general store. He has told voters that he rarely takes lengthy vacations and — unlike his brother’s Crawford, Tex., ranch — he has no vacation estate at the moment. He and his family usually spend their Christmas vacation on Gasparilla Island in southwest Florida, sometimes joined by his parents.
“I think Jeb’s the only one I really don’t know,” said John Downing, who served as the local York County, Maine, chairman for the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush presidential campaigns. “I’ve not seen him around.”
“From everything I can gather, he’s been nothing but a good governor of the state of Florida, certainly a good father and husband,” Downing said about Jeb Bush. “I think those things are very positive about him.”
Downing, who is also a real estate agent, said local businesses are pondering how a third Bush presidency might provide another jolt of economic activity.
“We’ll take anything that helps the home values go up,” he said.
Despite not coming often, Bush appears to feel the pull of the family’s coastal headquarters. After this weekend, Bush is expected to return July 9 for a two-day “retreat” with fundraising “co-chairs” who help him secure at least $27,000 in donations, according to people who have received invitations. The hope is to raise as much as $5 million for his campaign by the end of July, said one Bush supporter, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the plans. By then, a new home being built for him at the family compound will probably be ready for guests.
On Thursday at Walker’s Point, construction workers could be seen climbing ladders around the new home being built for Jeb’s use. A large, yellow truck was seen backing away from the site, while a bulldozer was parked behind it.
The $1.4 million, two-story cottage — in most places it would be called a large house — sits on a 1.3-acre plot just south of several much smaller cottages also used by Bush family members. Aides said that the new home will be occupied by other relatives and guests when Jeb isn’t in town.
To the south of the new home is a ranch-style structure housing George H.W. Bush’s office. On the southernmost point sits the iconic family home, where the 41st president and former first lady live with unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Above it all flies an American flag, with the flags of Maine and Texas billowing beneath. If the Lone Star state’s colors are flying, George and Barbara are in town. They’re usually here every May to October, family spokesman Jim McGrath said.
Elizabeth Spahr, a member of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, was at a nearby overlook weeding and pruning a planter next to a memorial built by locals to honor George H.W. Bush.
Spahr said she has met several of the family members and is most fond of Laura Bush. Barbara Bush is seen most mornings walking her dogs on a nearby beach.
Looking over at the compound, she said: “I guess they’re building a new home for Jeb. It’s awfully big.”
When asked about Jeb Bush’s presidential ambitions, she turned back to her weeding. “I don’t have an opinion on that,” she said.