Policy Wonk Jeb Bush Faces Campaign Image Test

03/09/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON, March 9 (Reuters) - In Republican Jeb Bush, Americans are seeing a different sort of Bush on their TV screens: a policy wonk who wears horn-rimmed glasses and has neither his brother's famous Texas swagger nor his father's patrician air.

The more introverted nature of Jeb, who admits he would rather stay home with a book than go out dancing, could be one challenge for his expected presidential campaign as he begins the kind of face-to-face interaction needed in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The former Florida governor will need to convince voters to elect another Bush in 2016 over other Republican stars, many of whom so far appear more at ease in the public glare, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Bush, who has not run for office for 12 years and who admits he lost the 1994 Florida governor race because people did not connect with him, has not always looked comfortable on stage in the early stages of the Republican nominee race.

Bush's aides say he prefers question-and-answer formats to set-piece speeches because they plays to his strengths, such as a detailed knowledge of policy. Many Republicans say that all he needs to do is shake off some rust.

"Jeb's got substance," said Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson. "He's got a lot of stories to tell as a successful governor and those things matter in the assessment people are going to make about the various candidates in the field."

The brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush is a practiced public speaker, but he tends to rush through prepared speeches and image experts say he has room to improve his body language.

And Bush is downright nerdy when it comes to details of policy and prides himself on minutiae. While the folksy George W. Bush famously described al Qaeda militants as "evildoers," Jeb uses diplomat-speak to say the extremist Islamic State group is an "asymmetric threat."

David Yepsen, a long-time Iowa watcher who is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said presidential candidates need an electric and charismatic presence and Bush has a ways to go to get there.

"If he's not exciting them with speeches and rhetoric the way Barack Obama did, he's got to do that personally and spend time with caucus-goers and primary voters and really work to overcome some of the problems he has as a result of his being the third Bush to run," he said.


Image can be a crucial factor in presidential races, as voters seek someone they can envision in the Oval Office and to whom they can relate. The 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, was seen as stiff and aloof, a perception that also dogged Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

Image experts describe Bush's body language as a work in progress after reviewing videotapes of his recent appearances.

They notice that he slumps his shoulders forward to look less than his six-foot-four-inch frame, and that he rubs his hands together, twists his wedding ring and thrusts a hand into a pocket, all signs suggesting some degree of public anxiety.

Jane Seaman, owner of the Imagine Image consulting firm in Houston, said Bush "seems uncomfortable in his clothes."

Image consultants say he will need to add passion to his obvious policy expertise.

"His words are very crafted. He's not yet personally passionate," said Patsy Cisneros, owner of West Coast-based Corporate Icon, an executive image specialist.

Bush is not known to consult an image specialist. The Bush camp declined to comment on how he is prepared for public appearances.

At an agricultural forum in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday, Bush appeared to be getting the hang of things. He praised the local food and reminisced warmly about his father's first, unsuccessful presidential bid in 1979.

The 62-year-old Jeb admits that he's at heart an introvert, telling a crowd in San Francisco recently that he "would rather read a book than go out and get in a conga line or go dancing."

When he ran again for Florida governor in 1998 and won, he did so by showing voters he cared about issues important to them. Vowing to improve education, for example, he visited 250 schools.

"I earned it by working hard to connect with people," he said in Detroit last month. "That experience on a national scale is going to be part of the strategy." (Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; editing by Stuart Grudgings)

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