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Jeb Bush's Rough Path to 2016

March 5, 2013 - 6:00pm

Jeb Bush might want to follow in his fathers and brothers footsteps and sit in the Oval Office. But while no Republican presidential ticket without a member of the Bush family has won the presidency since 1972, the former Florida governor is showing that he might have a hard time reclaiming the familys hold on the White House.

For sure the Jeb Bush 2016 presidential buzz is getting louder. And it should get louder still after Sunday, when he's due to appear on fivetalk shows NBCs Meet the Press, CNNs State of the Union, ABCs This Week, CBSs Face the Nation, and Fox News Sunday -- on the surface promoting his new book on immigration policies. But, as the national media noted last week, he hit some turbulence with that book.

A vocal opponent of Arizonas immigration law, Bush came out swinging in his book, in which he opposes creating paths to citizenship. This puts him squarely at odds with current immigration proposals being kicked around by national Republicans including Bush protege Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. While Bush walked back his opposition to paths to citizenship in interviews just a few days ago, the damage had already been done.

Despite winning a pivotal swing state twice and being recognized as a national leader on education reform, if he chooses to run in 2016, Jeb Bush will have a difficult pathway to the presidency. The Bushes aren't the most popular political clan early in the 21st Century. While Bushs father -- former President George H.W. Bush -- is generally regarded highly by the American public despite losing his bid for a second term in 1992, the same cant be said of former President George W. Bush. The 43rd president's record on the economy, government growth and foreign policy has few defenders.

Its telling that, only four years after he left the White House, George W. Bush was nowhere to be seen at the Republican National Convention. Nor did Mitt Romney make any attempts to link himself with the former president. Barack Obama and the Democrats, on the other hand, continued to blame George W. Bush on a host of fronts, and with some success.

There are other factors holding Jeb Bushs presidential aspirations back besides his brothers legacy. Florida could have another favorite son in 2016 in the shape of Rubio. In most of the early polls, Rubio is doing better among potential Republican primary voters than Bush is. As large a state as Florida is, it might not be large enough to support two presidential candidates. Jeb Bush could study his familys history to see how this could work. When he first sought the presidency in 1980, George H. W. Bush was hurt by the candidacy of fellow Texan John Connally.

Political geography could also hurt Jeb Bushs chances in 2016. The first presidential nomination contest is the Iowa caucus. While his father won it in 1980 and his brother prevailed in 2000, Jeb Bush might find Iowa hostile territory. Social conservatives remain very influential in Iowa Republican politics and that is clearly reflected in the presidential caucus. While Bob Dole won Iowa in 1988, television evangelist Pat Robertson edged out George H. W. Bush for second. Dole won Iowa again in 1996 but Pat Buchanan was right on his heels. George W. Bush won Iowa in 2000 but two minor social conservative candidates -- Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer -- still took a quarter of the vote between them.

In recent years, social conservatives in Iowa upended favorite candidates in the Republican caucuses. Mike Huckabee scored a major upset by beating out Mitt Romney in 2008s caucus. Four years later, Rick Santorum, who had placed fourth in the Iowa straw poll a few months earlier, came out of nowhere to upset Romney in the Iowa caucus. If he wants to run in 2016, Jeb Bush needs to keep an eye on Iowa in 2014 and see which way the winds are blowing as Republicans prepare to see who they will nominate to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin.

After Iowa comes New Hampshire. While New Hampshire rallied behind George H.W. Bush in 1988, the incumbent president got a scare from Pat Buchanan in 1992s primary. Independents can vote in the New Hampshire primary which helped John McCain upset George W. Bush in 2000. Independents are still a factor in New Hampshire. While his presidential bid flopped badly across the nation, Jon Huntsman scored with New Hampshire independents. While only 10 percent of registered Republicans backed Huntsman in the 2012 primary, he still won third place with 17 percent.

If New Hampshire independents are still down on his brother in 2016 and high on a moderate Republican (Chris Christie, for example), Jeb Bush could well pay the price.South Carolina helped George H.W. Bush secure the GOPs nomination in 1988 and did the same thing for George W. Bush in 2000. But, with the rise of the tea party, South Carolina Republicans are getting more conservative. Newt Gingrich beat out Romney there in 2012 and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham could be facing a tough primary challenge in 2014. Jeb Bush -- and any other Republican looking at 2016 -- will be closely watching how South Carolina Republicans go in 2014. While Florida will have its say after South Carolina, if Jeb Bush flops in the previous contests, he will have a hard time recovering outside of his home state.

Strangely enough, Bush could learn lessons from studying the campaign of an old family foe -- and possible 2016 presidential rival. When she sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Hillary Clinton was considered a heavy favorite to win it. But Barack Obama defeated her in Iowa and South Carolina and shattered any perceptions that Clinton following her husband into the White House was inevitable. Despite being a legacy candidate himself, Jeb Bush will not start off in the strong position his brother held in 2000 or that Clinton was in at the start of the 2008 contest.

If Jeb Bush wants to be president in 2016, he will have to start early to overcome his brothers legacy and the unfavorable political map. That means working crowds in remote rural areas in Iowa and building connections in the South Carolina upcountry in 2013 and 2014. Unlike his brother, Jeb Bush cant rely on a mostly united party leadership that will help him to victory. Nor can he afford much bad publicity. With his pivots on immigration this week, Jeb Bush did not help his future presidential ambitions. How he does in the coming weeks will show if he has what it takes to go the distance -- or if he has the political equivalent of a glass jaw.

Tallahassee freelance political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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