Former Gov. Jeb Bush all but formally announced last week that he will enter the 2016 presidential race, fixing Florida ever more firmly in the center of the quadrennial political drama and — more important — ensuring that a pragmatic, experienced conservative will be heard.
Mr. Bush’s decision to step into the fray came in a statement that he would “actively explore” a 2016 presidential run, a preliminary step toward a formal declaration. The dramatic developments involving the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba overshadowed Mr. Bush’s decision, yet it has a dramatic dimension of its own.
Most significant is Mr. Bush’s prominent role in the race at this admittedly early stage. Simply by announcing, he became the most serious presidential candidate from Florida in recent memory, perhaps ever. Former Govs. Bob Graham and the late Reubin Askew also waged embryonic presidential campaigns, but they never gained the traction that Mr. Bush enjoys today even though he is still weighing the odds.
A McClatchy-Marist poll last week found that the former Florida governor is a close second in the Republican field behind former GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who has yet to make his own decision. Mr. Romney has hinted that he might stay out if Mr. Bush made the race. Either way, Mr. Bush is poised to become the leader of the pack once all candidates make their own choices.
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Florida hardly needs more political attention in a presidential election race. It has a perennial claim on being the biggest toss-up state in the country, and it’s also a primary battleground that has put an end to the hopes of more than one early frontrunner, going back decades. Remember Rudy Giuliani (2008)? Or, for those with long memories, the late Democrat Scoop Jackson (1972)?
As a favorite son, Mr. Bush would be the automatic frontrunner in a Sunshine State primary. And what the 61-year-old former governor brings to the race is a badly needed, serious approach to politics, an antidote to the embarrassment created by the birthers, deporters and moat-builders of recent campaigns.
Mr. Bush has already signaled that he’s not going to make Mr. Romney’s 2012 mistake of appeasing right-wing extremists in the primaries at the expense of painting himself into an ideological corner in the general election, should he become a candidate.
He’s already shown what he means on issues like education, where he favors the Common Core standards that most states have embraced — and which tea partiers hate. And on another hot-button topic, immigration reform, Mr. Bush clearly gets it: The nation needs a broad overhaul of its immigration code, including an accommodation for most of those already here, if it is to move forward.
As to the charge that he is too “moderate” to be acceptable to the Republican base, tell that to those who knew him in Tallahassee. Former Sen. Dan Gelber, onetime Democratic leader in the state Senate, called him an “arch-conservative,” adding: “He might have been moderate now and again, but even then it was probably an accident.” Former House Speaker Will Weatherford said Mr. Bush “has as conservative a record as governor as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
It’s too early to pick favorites, but Mr. Bush’s entry would make it a better race. The Republican Party could use a strong center-right voice to improve its primaries. The GOP needs a candidate who can transform the circus of ideological intolerance into a contest of ideas.