Jeb Bush

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listens before speaking at the National Summit on Education Reform in Washington on Nov. 20, 2014. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Dan Balz

By Dan Balz, Chief Correspondent
December 17, 2014 at 11:52 AM

Jeb Bush could be the most unusual of presidential candidates: both a front-runner and an underdog.

Perhaps that explains the former Florida governor’s unexpected announcement Tuesday that he will actively explore a presidential candidacy. That he will do so came as no real surprise, given all he’s said and done the past few weeks. It’s been clear for some time that he was already actively exploring. That he felt the need to let the world know in such an explicit way before the holidays suggested he understands what comes with his unique position in the GOP field.

The immediate analyses of Bush’s announcement — which was posted on Facebook, a sign of his recognition of the importance of social media in today’s politics — focused on what this will mean for other prospective candidates, like fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, the freshman senator who might have been the more likely of the two to move early, given his limited national prominence and his need to build a solid fundraising network.

Or Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who has spent the past year courting big-time Republican donors in anticipation of a presidential run in 2016. Christie and Bush will be after many of the same people as they raise the money needed to sustain a presidential campaign through what is expected to be a competitive and unpredictable nomination contest.

They are just two of a dozen or so Republicans who are now feeling the rumbles set off by Bush’s announcement. Every candidate claims that the decisions of others will have no impact on their own decision — as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told reporters in his home state shortly after the Bush news broke Tuesday. But all certainly are rethinking their own situations — not necessarily whether they will run, but what it will mean to have a Republican named Bush in the race, and a Bush who seems to be deliberately incautious right now in the moves he’s making.

Bush will be dubbed the nominal front-runner for two reasons.

First, in the absence of Mitt Romney, he becomes the leader in early polls of Republicans’ preferences. Those polls ought to be taken for what they’re worth, which is not much.

That he stands atop the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll (again if Romney is removed from the field) says little. His numbers — 15 percent among all adults; 14 percent among registered voters — hardly qualify for front-runner status.

In this survey, he is ahead of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the 2012 vice presidential nominee, by a margin-of-error difference. At 14 percent, he’s well below what even Romney was getting four years ago at this early stage, and Romney was considered a fragile front-runner because of resistance on the right. What does that make Bush?

He’s the so-called front-runner as well because, presumably, he can tap into significant amounts of establishment Republican money. There’s the Bush network, somewhat dated at this point but still a resource. There’s the Romney network, fresher and extensive, but not necessarily transferable without a clear signal from Romney. Then there’s whatever new network he can create.

Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, once told me that, had Bush run in 2012, he might have skipped the race, feeling that Bush might have been a stronger candidate to take on President Obama. It’s doubtful he would have stayed out of 2012 regardless, but it speaks to his assessment then of Bush’s potential as a candidate.

Romney is still loyal to Ryan, his vice presidential nominee, is friendly with Christie and perhaps still harbors at least a sliver of thought that, if the GOP nomination contest turns into chaos sometime later next year, he might be drawn into a third campaign. He’s not likely to encourage his donors to move en masse to Bush.

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