Jeb Bush jolted his prospective rivals for the Republican presidential nomination last winter when he dived with unexpected aggressiveness into the 2016 campaign. Few of them seem to be quaking now.
The former Florida governor is still the biggest name in the GOP field, with a fundraising network unmatched by any of the others. But Bush’s considerable assets so far have done little to reshape the early polls or keep others out of the race. If anything, it’s the opposite.
Bush acknowledged all this when he was in New Hampshire a week ago. Noting his strong establishment support, one voter, concerned about whether he was a true conservative, said she and others don’t want to see a coronation for the GOP nomination in the way Democrats seem to be moving to anoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as their nominee.
An incredulous Bush responded with laughter. “I don’t see any coronation coming my way, trust me,” he said. “Come on. What do you see that I’m not seeing? We’ve got 95 people possibly running for president. I’m really intimidating a whole bunch of folks, aren’t I?”
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Perhaps by next winter, Bush will have become that intimidating figure, but over the past month, things have happened that seemed far less likely when he released a short video announcing that he was seriously considering running.
Many Republicans assumed that Sen. Marco Rubio would not run for the nomination if Bush, one of his mentors in Florida politics, were in the race. They misunderstood Rubio. Two weeks ago he formally announced his candidacy and seemed to take a swipe at Bush by presenting himself as a new generation candidate running against “yesterday.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is another example. No one was affected more by Bush’s decision to start building the financial foundations for a future campaign. The embattled Christie was counting on his ability to revive his prospects by proving he could raise substantial amounts of money from the GOP establishment. Suddenly, many of those donors began flocking to Bush.
Christie still has many obstacles ahead that have nothing to do with Bush. No one in the field of candidates has consistently higher unfavorable ratings among GOP rank and file than the New Jersey governor. Still, his advisers believe he has weathered the worst of it and have begun the process of trying to rebrand him as a genuine contender.
“There is less of an impact than we thought a month or six weeks ago,” said a Christie adviser who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly.
Bush has been on a fundraising tear all winter and spring. Lots of numbers have been thrown out estimating the size of the haul he is taking in. Whenever he reports what he’s raised, it’s likely to be an eye-popping number. But the role that super PACs are playing in 2016 gives other candidates confidence that, if they can find an angel or two to give them multimillion-dollar contributions, they can be competitive.
As for the size of the GOP field, Bush was correct in suggesting that his presence has hardly kept others from thinking seriously about running. Some of those who are listed as prospective candidates, or who show up at cattle calls, are pure pretenders with no chance of winning the nomination. But the number of well-accredited, potential candidates is substantially greater than four years ago and, if anything, continues to grow. The 2016 field is stronger by far than the 2012 field.
There are at least three and possibly four sitting senators who will be in the race – Rubio, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and, likely, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also is a likely candidate.
There are three sitting governors – Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal – along with Bush, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Texas governor Rick Perry. And more governors could be coming.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich continues to lean further into a possible candidacy. He is an impulsive politician who often operates by gut instinct. Though he sounds more and more like a candidate, until he says he’s a candidate, he could easily pull back. But lately it’s as if he is talking himself into doing this.
Add to this mix Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Kasich’s neighbor to the north. He’s the anti-politician of the group, a former businessman who plays by unusual rules. He has been equivocal in his public comments about running.
But friends have urged him to run, and he is currently assessing whether he can put together the money needed to compete. In addition, he will soon begin to road test his story and record as governor before outside audiences.
There is also Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, though his prospects have been set back by the controversy over the religious liberty legislation that he signed and then was forced to revise under pressure.
Snyder takes the view that is shared by other Republicans: With this many possible candidates, why not me? That wouldn’t be the case if Bush hovered above the field the way his brother, former president George W. Bush, did in 2000 as that campaign was starting to take shape.
The early polls reinforce the feeling of “why not me” among prospective candidates. Even those at the front of the pack right now are struggling to get even a paltry 20 percent share of support. They’re stuck in the mid-teens or lower.
At this stage, the GOP candidates can persuade themselves that they could win Iowa or New Hampshire with a relatively smaller share of the vote than in past races. But that could also turn out to be good for Bush, who has vulnerabilities in both those early states, if he can expertly play the expectations game along with the others.
The three senators who have formally declared their candidacies have seen their poll numbers bounce up temporarily. If anything, the movement underscores the degree to which Republican voters are far from making up their minds.
Bush’s rivals still see him as the biggest figure in the race and the one with the most potential staying power. “There are a lot of paper tigers in the race right now, and one of those could end up very easily being the winner,” said a strategist working for one of the candidates, who declined to be identified. “But it’s hard to call Jeb a paper tiger at this stage, just because of the financial organization he has.”
Bush and his team see this stage as a time for building, not consolidating. They want to be ready when voters start to focus. But given what has and hasn’t happened so far this year, it’s not hard to see that he will have to earn the nomination through dogged work, outsized fundraising and a message that persuades conservatives that they can trust him enough to vote for him. For now, he’s not scaring off the competition.