The Frontrunner in Name Only

06/23/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has campaigned tirelessly in recent months to carve out his position as the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primaries. Bush already faces one of the most crowded and competitive Republican fields in decades, and the earliest primaries are still eight months away. While his financial reports would suggest he is the presumed favorite of the Republican establishment and the mega-donors that keep it running, his position as the leader in this swelling pack is far from certain.

Bush faces strong competition on all fronts - the champion of the libertarian wing of the GOP, Rand Paul, the champion of the Evangelical wing, Mike Huckabee, Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, the young and energetic Marco Rubio, one of the most aggressive hawks in the Senate in Lindsey Graham, wild cards Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, and new addition Donald Trump, whose campaign announcement was so bizarre it seems only fair he be in his own category. Carson and Fiorina are far from mainstream candidates either, but lumping them in with Trump would likely be doing them a disservice. Still, the number of declared candidates has grown to twelve, with Governors Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Joe Kasich expected to make announcements soon.

If the wide variety of viable candidates proves anything, it's that the GOP is fracturing into distinct groups uniting under the banner of conservatism while possessing unique visions for the future. There is no path to victory for Jeb Bush without these groups, and that's a difficult tightrope to walk.

A rocky start to his campaign certainly hasn't helped. After flubbing a softball question on the Iraq War from Fox News' Megyn Kelly, it took Bush several attempts to properly communicate that he disagreed with his brother's decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Just a week before his official announcement that he was entering the race, the Bush team made major changes, including replacing the campaign manager and other key staff positions. Polling data suggests that Bush is struggling to get a foothold in Iowa and New Hampshire, where grass-roots voters question his commitment to conservative values. The most recent RealClearPolitics data from Iowa has Bush at dismal 8.5%, trailing Rubio, Huckabee, Paul, and Walker, who leads the pool at 18.5%. Bush seems to be painfully aware of his shortcomings in The Hawkeye State, as he has held only a handful of events there despite its reputation as a key state in building momentum.

National polls are somewhat more promising, as the most recent Fox poll has Jeb tied with Walker for the lead at 12%, while CNN has him in second place, down a point to Rubio at 13%. Still, one would expect more from a candidate raising so much money and who most assumed was far and away the favorite to win the nomination.

These indicators point to a candidate who is ripe for an upset. It's difficult to tell whether the Bush family legacy has proven more of a hindrance than an advantage, but the Bush campaign seems to prefer removing it from the equation altogether - Jeb has not appeared at campaign events with his father or brother, and has only reluctantly answered questions about their policies. His "leftist" stances on issues like education and immigration - he supports the Common Core curriculum and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants - has alienated more conservative members of a Republican base moving rapidly in the opposite direction.

Jeb Bush is looking at a much more difficult pathway to the White House than his Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton, who has all but cleared the field of anyone who would challenge her but for a lone, outspoken, Independent Senator from Vermont and a couple of stragglers. At this point, the race for the Republican nomination may well be anyone's game. But perhaps it's for the best - a Bush v. Clinton race would, more than anything, undermine the American ideal of meritocratic elections. Which is not to question the candidates' qualifications - on the contrary. But the passing of power through family lines seems to me a practice we as Americans started our own thing to avoid.

Either way, I'll probably still vote for Chelsea Clinton in 2032 when George P. Bush decides to avenge the family legacy. Old habits die hard.