Jeb Bush sounding more like a presidential candidate

In an interview, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he 'won't' rule out a run in 2016 and seemed to be positioning himself in a way that would appeal to Republican primary voters.

By , Correspondent

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    Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), taking a higher profile role on policy issues recently, talks about education before the Texas Business Leadership Council on Feb. 26 in Austin. He has a new book, 'Immigration Wars,' coming out Tuesday.
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Watch out, Marco Rubio.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – who, by any measure, would instantly become one of 2016's heavyweights should he decide to run for president – is hinting that a campaign might actually be in the cards.

Pressed on NBC's "Today" Monday as to whether he would "rule out" a run, he answered directly: "I won't," adding, "but I'm not going to declare today, either." Sounding like someone who intends to be a significant player, Mr. Bush said that while 2016 is "way off into the future," he's hoping to "share my beliefs about how the conservative movement and the Republican Party can regain its footing – because we've lost our way." 

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Now, of course, Bush also happens promoting a new book, "Immigration Wars," which is being released Tuesday. (He'll be a guest at the Monitor Breakfast on Wednesday.) And there's nothing like a swirl of presidential speculation to bring extra publicity to such an effort – frankly, he'd be crazy to rule out a run, for that reason.

But his comments, while still leaving plenty of wiggle room, were notably more definitive than anything he's said in the past. In fact, they were more definitive than what most other prospective 2016ers, such as Senator Rubio, have said so far. Most tend to offer something along the lines of, "I'm not thinking about that right now; I'm focused on the job at hand," and leave it at that.

Maybe even more interesting, in the same interview, Bush positioned himself to the right of Rubio on immigration – an issue where he, like his fellow Floridian, is widely seen as a party leader, and where he's generally been considered more moderate, at least in his rhetoric, than much of the party's base.

Bush supports a comprehensive reform bill, but said on "Today" that he would not support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a key plank of the legislation being crafted by the Senate "Gang of Eight," which includes Rubio. Instead, Bush said he would favor granting them permanent legal status.

"If we want to create an immigration policy that's going to work, we can't continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration," he said.

As Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin points out, this is a shift from what Bush was saying as recently as last June, when he told CBS's Charlie Rose: “Either a path to citizenship, which I would support – and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives – or a path to residency of some kind.... I would accept that in a heartbeat as well if that’s the path to get us to where we need to be, which is, on a positive basis, using immigration to create sustained growth.” 

Needless to say, this is all fairly intriguing. Until now, we've tended to regard Bush as a Mario Cuomo-type politician – someone who could become an instant front-runner should he enter the race, but who, for various reasons, we think may not pull the trigger in the end. (Recent reports that he was trying to buy the Miami Marlins baseball team only added to that impression.)

Certainly, the Bush family name brings serious clout and credentials, but it also carries a tremendous amount of baggage. And a Jeb Bush candidacy would inevitably raise questions about whether the party was moving forward or backward.

A Public Policy Polling survey recently found Rubio leading Bush nationally among Republican primary voters, 22 to 13 percent. On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Times ran a poll of more than 100 "Florida insiders" (political operatives, lobbyists, fundraisers, etc.) last December, and found that 62 percent expected Bush to run for president in 2016 – and 81 percent said they believed Bush would be a stronger candidate than Rubio.

For now, Bush sounds an awful lot like someone who's trying to appeal to primary voters in Iowa. In the "Today" interview, Bush – a former governor who had to deal with a number of devastating hurricanes during his time in office, and knows what it's like to rely on federal aid – defended House Republicans for battling New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) over funding for hurricane Sandy.

While saying "look, I love Christie," he said he understood why Governor Christie was not invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): "I think the issue of [Christie] castigating the House particularly for not going along with a $60 billion spending deal that had very little to do with Sandy recovery ... that's what I think was the critique," he said. Bush will be a featured speaker at CPAC later this month.

On the other hand, he did allow that there "may be" room for additional revenue increases down the road as part of a larger deficit-reduction deal between the White House and Congress – if President Obama is willing to tackle "our structural problems," such as entitlement reform.

That's in line with previous comments Bush has made criticizing antitax advocate Grover Norquist's famous no-new-taxes pledge, something Bush refused to sign during his three electoral campaigns. But he said now is not the time to be talking about revenues, given the tax hikes that came as a result of the fiscal cliff deal. 

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