Hillary Clinton+Jeb Bush

Bush’s bold jump catches Clinton backers by surprise.


By Maggie Haberman
12/18/14 3:51 PM EST

For months, Hillary Clinton’s allies viewed one Republican as posing a bigger threat to her in a 2016 presidential general election matchup than any other: Jeb Bush. But they believed Bush wouldn’t ultimately take the plunge.

Over the last three weeks, however, it’s become clear to people in Clinton’s extended orbit that Bush is not only likely to run but that he’s taking the stage in unabashedly aggressive fashion.

On one level, the distraction of another big name receiving the 2016 media klieg light treatment was a welcome development for Clinton. But Bush’s decision to plow ahead also highlights Clinton’s comparatively slow walk and relative caution as she approaches the starting line.

It also underscores their vastly different circumstances. Bush needed to send an early signal about his intentions: His party’s primary is shaping up as a crowded parade of sitting and former governors who are approaching donors. Questions persisted about whether Bush wanted to run, but supporters of the former Florida governor say he’s always wanted to; it was just a matter of him and his family reaching a comfort level.

As the prohibitive frontrunner in the Democratic field, Clinton has the luxury of taking more time. But some former advisers to President Barack Obama have been vocal about their concerns that she is risking the same mistake she made in 2008 in creating an aura of an “inevitable” candidacy. Bush’s declaration that he’s prepared to stick to his principles at the risk of offending base voters – to “lose the primary to win the general,” as he put it recently – has further heightened the contrast with Clinton.

While she continues to weigh whether she wants to launch a second campaign, the risk is that voters could see him as authentic — particularly if holds to his “I won’t bend” approach — as private polling shows Clinton still faces questions about whether she is politically calculating.

“What you’re going to get from Jeb is, ‘This is who I am, take it or leave it,’” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who knows Bush. “And that’s what we say we want in our politicians.”

He predicted that would be a contrast with Clinton, who is buffeted by backers of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the economic populist calling for reining in big banks. Clinton got tangled up during the midterms in an apparent effort to emulate Warren’s populism during a Massachusetts campaign stop.

“We’ve already seen Hillary trying to transform herself into Elizabeth Warren Lite,” Castellanos said. “She is what Republican candidates tried to do last time, which is [practice] finger in the wind, follow the primary voter” politics.

Bush is by no means a lock on his party’s nomination in the way Clinton is perceived to be on hers. Few Republicans were openly pledging deference to Bush the way many Democrats have to Clinton. Conservatives have been unswayed by his record while in office and insist he’s a squish who represents the elite. Even some of his supporters privately have wondered whether he will be like his brother or like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the media darling of 2011 who flamed out soon after declaring.

Beyond policy questions, Bush hasn’t run a campaign since 2002 and faces challenges surviving in the Twitter era. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who says he’s still thinking of running for president, responded to Obama’s plans to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba well before Bush on Wednesday. Bush’s recent investment activity also suggests a potential candidate who believes the usual laws of political gravity won’t apply to him.

Yet Bush seems confident he has something to offer the general electorate.

“This is the way he was when he was governor of Florida,” said former Missisippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “He was very policy-oriented, he was a straight shooter, and he was tolerant of people who disagreed with him, but he didn’t pander to them.”

Bush has shown little of the slash-and-burn instinct toward Hillary Clinton that other Republicans have. He was on hand in Philadelphia as she was presented with an award last year at the National Constitution Center. And his main criticism of her this year came after her fiery remarks at a campaign rally in Massachusetts: “Don’t let anyone tell you that corporations and businesses create jobs.”

In a clear sign of his own growing interest in a campaign, Bush, as he campaigned for Republicans that week, did not name Clinton but referenced her “breathtaking” statement. How hard he will hit Clinton remains to be seen. He frowned on Bill Clinton’s scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, according to people who’ve spoken with him since the former president left office, but unlike other Republicans has not attacked Clinton over it. His father has forged a deep bond with Bill Clinton through their shared worked on international relief efforts.

Bush also faces a tough balancing act in trying to convince voters whose views he shuns to support him.

“I think there’s a very fine line between standing up for what you think is right and poking your finger in every primary voter’s eye, and we’re about to find out how fine that line is,” said Castellanos.

If he does it successfully, “he’s eating up that moderate space” that Clinton also will need in the general election, said former President Obama adviser Stephanie Cutter. However, she noted, no one has been able to avoid being pulled too far to the right in a GOP primary since George W. Bush ran in 2000.

When Bush was governor of Florida in 2000 — watching as his brother was trying to stop Al Gore from keeping the White House under Democratic control for a third straight term — he told an interviewer that Republicans of different stripes had coalesced around George W. Bush.

“Eight years in the wilderness brings a higher tolerance for diversity,” he was quoted saying at the time.

Whether that holds true now remains to be seen.

As for Clinton, several Democratic supporters said Wednesday, one issue is whether she can avoid falling prey to responding to whatever Bush says during any given news cycle and getting dragged into the race sooner than she is ready.

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