TAMPA, Fla. -– What do the Bushes want? More to the point, what will they do? The outcome of the presidential campaign, especially here in Florida, may well hinge on the answers to those questions.
Mitt Romney’s campaign is counting on Jeb Bush Sr. and his sons, George P. Bush and Jeb Jr., to team up with Sen. Marco Rubio (whom they backed early on) to help turn out the Hispanic vote in the state.
If they do, and if Romney wins the presidency, what does that mean for Jeb’s not-yet-quite-extinguished thought of running for president himself? And what does it mean for the GOP’s issue agenda?
Jeb has made it clear that he is not pleased with the direction of the Republican Party -– a direction that, if anything, Romney accelerated this year by running as far to the right as he could.
Romney took hard-line positions on immigration, abortion and marriage to name three, and poll numbers show him trailing President Barack Obama badly among African Americans, Latinos, women. and young, socially tolerant voters, especially in urban areas.
Jeb Bush did not endorse Romney until after Romney essentially had the nomination locked up. Jeb Jr. endorsed former Utah Gov. John Huntsman.
The GOP “long-term” cannot win with a limited appeal, Jeb Bush said this week, choosing the day before the scheduled start of the Republican convention to make his case very pointedly on TV.
“You can’t ask people to join your cause and then send a signal that, ‘You’re really not wanted,’” the former Florida governor said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “It doesn’t work.”
“Long-term,” Bush said on the show, “there has to be a concerted effort to reach out to a much broader audience than we do today.”
But how does Jeb move the party in the direction he thinks it should go?
At a VIP gathering here, leaders of the Florida Republican political establishment told me that they were convinced that former Bush indeed wanted to run for president, and would do so in 2016 if the opportunity became available. Of course it would only be available if the candidate the GOP is about nominate here, Mitt Romney, loses to President Barack Obama.
“Jeb definitely wants to run,” said Mel Sembler, a longtime Bush family friend and fundraiser. My MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough, a former Florida congressman from Pensacola, said he thinks the same thing. “He’ll run if the opportunity is there,” he said.
The Bush family, especially Jeb’s eldest son, 36-year-old George P. Bush, is scheduled to play a key role in the GOP Florida ground game. The clan is well known and, at least by Republican standards, well regarded, even by Hispanics in the state. Jeb’s wife, Columba, is Mexican by birth and family members are fully bilingual.
George P., who was born in Florida but who lives in Austin, Texas, leads his own PAC, called Maverick Pac, and has developed a national network of younger Republican activists in Texas, Florida and other states.
Florida, of course, is key to Romney’s chances, and he has to do better among Latinos than Sen . John McCain did in 2008. With heavy support from the Cuban community in Miami –- but very little from non-Cuban Hispanics -– McCain got 38 percent overall.
To improve on that, the Romney campaign in Florida has 13 full time staffers devoted to Hispanic outreach alone -– many more than in 2008, according to Alberto Martinez, an advisor to the campaign on the Latino vote. “We have a much stronger organization,” he said.
“Geographically, we are much more ambitious, and are covering most of the state in a way we did not do last time,” said Martinez. “We expect to have lots of help from former governor Bush and from his sons.”
One key element: A bus tour around the state sponsored by George P’s PAC, and led by the George P. himself. The message: The future of Hispanic families is central to the future of America.
“Hispanics believe in American exceptionalism because they worked so hard and took so many risks to come here,” George P. said. “They will respond to a message about jobs, but also about the importance of solving the debt crisis for the benefit of their own future generations.”
At 36, George P. is the right messenger for that message. And if he can make the sale, Mitt Romney –- not his own dad –- will be the beneficiary.
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