By Susan Page, USA TODAY
AUSTIN - Jeb Bush will not be ignored.
He is releasing a provocative book on immigration this week, addressing conservative leaders next week and is brutally outspoken in an interview with USA TODAY about the self-inflicted wounds he thinks cost Republicans a winnable presidential race in 2012. In the process, he says, the GOP managed to sour its standing with fast-growing demographic groups that should be natural allies.
The former two-term governor of Florida - the son of one president and the brother of another - argues Republicans will "doom" their national electoral prospects for the future unless they forge a new approach to immigration and a more open attitude toward immigrants. At the moment, Republicans project an angry tone "that says, 'I'd love to have your vote but you can't be on my team,'" he says. "Man, just close your eyes and listen. There is not a lot of positive messaging going on."
Bush is even more critical, almost contemptuous, of President Obama on the immigration issue, calling the administration's move last week to release some illegal immigrants from detention because of automatic budget cuts "deplorable" and describing his record on the issue as cynical and partisan.
"Leaders lead, they don't divide; they don't create a climate that is poisonous," he says. "And the president is a great campaigner. Fantastic campaigner. Great. OK, we've got that established, that fact. But the campaign is over, and he's still in campaign mode."
So Bush must be preparing to run for president in 2016, right?
Not even going to think about it until next year, he insists, then groans when asked why, in that case, he signed up to deliver a featured address at the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) next week outside Washington.
"That's a good question," he says, shooting an exaggerated glare in the direction of some aides. "It's because a lot of people urged me to do it." He downplays expectations for the speech - "I'm going to be exhausted" - and praises other Republicans who are considering presidential runs, including fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio.
But Bush, 60, also does nothing to deny his own presidential ambitions. He sat out last year's contest despite the urging of those who saw him as the only figure who could jump in late, unite the party and effectively challenge Obama. Instead, he watched Mitt Romney lose.
Could he have won? "Absolutely," Bush says. "I admire Mitt Romney . . . but he got himself in a box on this issue."
"This issue" refers to immigration, including Republican demands for tougher border security and Romney's inartful suggestion of "self-deportation" by illegal immigrants living in the United States. In the end, Obama carried Hispanic and Asian-American voters by more than 3-1.
Since the election, the political imperative in both parties to act on immigration prompted Bush and co-author Clint Bolick to speed up publication of Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution by two months so it might help shape the debate on Capitol Hill. In the 274-page book, they outline a prescription on immigration that is likely to raise some hackles on both sides.
At odds with many conservatives, they support establishing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. without setting preconditions on improvements in border security. At odds with many liberals, that path to legal status wouldn't include citizenship for those who arrived in the United States as adults.
Their proposal would limit the family preference system that now allows the brothers, sisters and parents of legal residents to emigrate. Instead, they would expand visas available to entrepreneurs, to high-skilled workers with advanced math and science degrees, and to low-skilled workers needed to fill agricultural and other jobs. And they would give states the power to step up their own enforcement of federal immigration laws and to curtail social services for illegal immigrants - an idea that is sure to spark controversy.
The book notes that federal law requires hospital emergency rooms to provide medical care to everyone and proposes that states be allowed to "define which services are covered" for illegal immigrants and those who don't yet have permanent legal residency. Bolicksays that step could save the government money and reduce public resentment of illegal immigrants. "I'm not prepared to say we should change that law," Bush says. "I think we ought to have a conversation about that."
The plan is a more extensive overhaul of immigration law than the Obama administration's draft proposal that leaked last month and a more conservative blueprint than the working principles outlined by the bipartisan group of eight senators now trying to negotiate a bill. Bush argues it's also more likely to get through the Republican-controlled House.
"That could create a dialogue to find some middle ground that would get us to where we need to be," he says.
'A huge Marco fan'
Bush may be determined to wait until next year to focus on a possible presidential run, but Rubio already is on the move.
Rubio, 41, a member of that bipartisan Senate group on immigration, delivered the official Republican response to the president's State of the Union Address in January. He's just back from a trip to the Mideast that burnished his foreign policy credentials. At the end of last year, he just happened to keynote an event in Iowa, site of the opening presidential caucuses.
Rubio's rising profile has put a bit of pressure on Bush to decide his own intentions, or at least take some steps (CPAC, anyone?) to make sure the door doesn't close on him.
In 2009, after Florida Sen. Mel Martinez announced he wouldn't run for a second term, Rubio went to Bush's law office in Miami to discuss the race for an hour. "If he were to run, no one would challenge him in the primary - certainly not me," Rubio explained in his book An American Son, published last year. Only when Bush called to say he had decided against seeking the seat did Rubio seriously weigh getting in.
No such conversation has taken place between the two men about the presidential race, Bush says.
"We haven't talked about 2016," Bush says. "But I'm a huge Marco fan and I'm inspired by him and I think he's doing a great job as a senator, and we're friends. That's the level of our relationship. I've always been a fan of him from when he was, like, 26 years old and a city councilman in West Miami. I knew he had a gift."
So another question: How many Republicans who hail from Miami-Dade County and share key advisers, close ties to the Hispanic community and a focus on immigration policy can run for president at the same time?
Bush laughs. "I'll let the pundits salivate over that," he replies. "It's for my own sanity and for good reasons that I don't think about it. I don't speculate about it. I don't dream about it. I can shut that off. I've got enough things going on in my life, trust me."
Mutual friends predict Bush and Rubio won't find themselves facing off in the Republican primaries.
"Being a friend of both, I cannot see a scenario where they both would run," says Ana Navarro, a GOP strategist who worked on immigration policy for Bush in the statehouse. "The friendship and mutual respect between them is real, and there's just so much overlap in friends, in supporters."
Bush says he isn't driven by presidential fever, by a burning desire to claim the top job in politics. "There's a lot of obsession about people's personal ambitions," he says. "I think my motivation really relates to broader issues. ... I want my voice to have purpose. If I can help create an environment where the principles that I believe in can be implemented - to me, that's fulfilling."
"Jeb is the grown-up in the room," says Sally Bradshaw, a veteran in Florida Republican politics who served as Bush's chief of staff as governor. "He has a perspective and an ability to sell big ideas."
On this day, he is in the Texas state Capitol on behalf of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group he formed four years ago to encourage other states to adopt the education policies he implemented in Florida. As he waits in a hallway, Gov. Rick Perry (yet another potential 2016 contender) emerges from an elevator. "How you doing?" Bush asks. "Best you ever saw," Perry booms.
Perry extolls what he tells Bush is the most conservative Texas legislature in nearly three decades.
"Twenty senators over here with an 'R' by their name," he brags. Nineteen, an aide murmurs.
"Nineteen? Should be 20," the governor says, undeterred.
"In the education reform world, the more conservative you are doesn't mean you'll be on the side of change," Bush demurs, calling it an issue that crosses party lines. He meets with the governor, sits down with some state legislators, then addresses the Senate education committee. Bush has brought a PowerPoint presentation about Florida education policies with him.
As he heads out of the Capitol, Bush spots the official portrait of his older brother, George W. Bush, twice elected governor before he was became president. "There he is," Bush declares, pausing momentarily as he makes an exaggerated ta-da gesture oddly reminiscent of his brother.
A passer-by shouts, "How's your dad?" Former president George H.W. Bush was released from a Houston hospital in January after being treated for more than a month for bronchitis. "Better," he replies, heading down stairs and out the door.
Later, Bush says his father has become "frail" at age 88. "He's an old guy, is the best way to describe him," he says. "But he's in relatively good health."
That father-son talk
At 6'4", Jeb Bush is taller than his brother and father. He is big and blunt. If George W. bears an eerie resemblance to their father, Jeb is a bit more inclined to favor their mother. He is more reserved and more cerebral than his brother, but they share the same vocal inflections and competitive instincts. Both first ran for governor in 1994, when George W. won in Texas and Jeb lost in Florida, only to run again successfully four years later.
Every winning national Republican ticket in more than three decades has had a Bush on it, running as president or vice president. If Jeb were also to win the White House, the Bushes would be the first family ever to count three presidents among their ranks. What's more, Jeb's son George P. Bush, 36, is planning to run for statewide office in Texas next year, probably for land commissioner. His other son, Jeb Jr., 29, is weighing a campaign in Florida.
"He has been encouraged to consider running for Congress," Jeb Bush says. But his son feels "some trepidation" about having a father-son talk about it, he says. "I think he knows what I'll tell him. I'll tell him what my dad told me, which was: What happens if you win?"
In national politics, the Bush name looms as both blessing and curse for Jeb Bush. The family's political credentials and connections give him ready access to a significant fundraising network. But for some skeptical conservatives, he is also shadowed by his father's decision to break his no-new-taxes pledge and his brother's expansion of the federal government and the budget deficit.
"If Jeb Bush runs, he's not going to be the conservative candidate in the primaries," says Terry Jeffrey, a conservative columnist and editor of the CNSNews.com, likening Bush to Romney in 2012. "He's going to be the establishment candidate, and his viability will depend on how many conservatives are splitting the vote in the early caucuses and primaries."
For some Democrats, the Bush name revives memories of the disputed 2000 election that put George W. Bush in the White House and of the divisive war in Iraq.
In a Quinnipiac University survey released last month, close to half of registered voters said they didn't know enough about Jeb Bush to have an opinion, but partisans on both sides were more likely to have definite views.
Republicans by 46%-7% had a favorable impression of Jeb Bush. Democrats by 50%-11% had an unfavorable one.
Alienating 'natural allies'
Last year, Bush was in Phoenix to speak at a fundraiser on behalf of Save Our Secret Ballot, an advocacy group that encourages states to pass constitutional amendments that require a secret ballot when workers vote on whether to be represented by a union. "In the very first question, Jeb was asked how we could stop the hordes of people pouring over our southern border and committing crimes and going on welfare, and his response was to rephrase the question," Bolick recalls. "He said, 'How can the Republican Party avoid committing suicide by continuing to alienate people who ought to be our natural allies?'"
Bolick, a prominent conservative lawyer affiliated with the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, approached Bush after the speech and proposed that they write a book together outlining an immigration overhaul.
Bush dedicated the book to his granddaughter, Georgia, as the epitome of America's immigrant heritage. The toddler's father, Jeb Jr., has an American father and Mexican-born mother, Columba. Georgia's mother, Sandra, is a Canadian citizen of Iraqi descent.
"She's an Iraqi-Canadian-Mexican-Texan-American," Bush says of his granddaughter. "She's a quadra-hyphenated American. And 20 years from now, when she fills out the Census form, and asked what her ethnicity is, she'll say, 'Not applicable.'" He pulls out his smartphone to show off a photograph of the little girl, grinning.