EX-AMABASSADOR SAYS JEB COULD BE A CONTENDER
WASHINGTON - As Jeb Bush weighs a run for the White House, his prospective candidacy is being praised by a well-known Republican who helped organize his brother's successful campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
David Wilkins, the former ambassador to Canada who co-chaired and then chaired George W. Bush's two campaigns in the key Republican primary state of South Carolina, says the younger sibling has the skills to go the distance.
"He brings a lot to the table. He would be a serious candidate from Day One," Wilkins said in an interview, touting Bush's track record as Florida governor and his thoughtful stand on immigration and education.
"If he decides to run, I'm not saying he'd win, but I think he'd be a very viable candidate."
The former South Carolina legislature speaker, political organizer, and diplomat isn't showing his cards yet about whom he'd support — but he said he'd hope to chat with Bush should he decide to run.
Wilkins' home state tends to be a make-or-break one for Republican presidential aspirants. South Carolina backed every successful Republican nominee since the modern primary system was introduced in 1980, until 2012 when primary voters in the state broke their winning streak by backing Newt Gingrich.
The next one could be a classic.
On one side, party brass are eager to get behind a candidate with mainstream appeal to avoid a repeat of the energy-sapping battle of 2012 and, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie undermined by a bridge scandal, they're reportedly pressing Bush to consider running.
In the other corner, there's a conservative grassroots fed up with seeing its favourite candidates brushed aside in favour of establishment darlings like John McCain and Mitt Romney, who go on to lose anyway.
Bush has said he'll take the rest of the year to decide.
Wilkins said he could be the guy to rally the party base in early 2016 and then win over the general public later in the year.
"I think Republicans are hungry for a candidate we can get behind," Wilkins said.
"The trump card will be a candidate who can unite people, who can win in November. I think Republicans are looking for that type of candidate — maybe not one who just appeals to a certain segment of the Republican party but someone who can appeal to the all the Republican party and, most importantly, be a strong candidate to independents and therefore be able to win in November.
"I think Jeb Bush would be one of those. I'm not saying he'd be the only one."
The grassroots is far from unanimous on that score.
The potential blowback has been evident in some of the vitriol in online comment boards, and in the boos when Bush's name was scornfully raised by Donald Trump at a New Hampshire conservative event last week.
The biggest knocks against him?
One, he supports federalized education standards. And then there's his support for residency rights for illegal immigrants.
Party members are fuming over his recent expression of sympathy for parents who sneak across the border in the hope of a better life for their children, which Bush called an "act of love." He has personal ties to the Latin American community, through his Mexican-born wife Columba, and a report this week said she wasn't keen on him re-entering politics.
Bush has said two factors will guide his decision on whether to run: his family, and whether he believes he could do it "joyfully."
He appeared determined to drive home that sunny message when speaking to a party grassroots that has come to be defined over the last few years by anger — particularly at the Obama White House.
"All too often we're associated with being 'anti' everything," Bush told last year's Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party."
He even expressed concern about inequality: "Here's reality: if you're fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, much of the rest of the nation is drowning. In our country today, if you're born poor, if your parents didn't go to college, if you don't know your father, if English isn't spoken at home, then the odds are stacked against you."
The political odds might also be stacked against him.
That speech drew polite applause. An aggregate of polls on the RealClearPolitics website suggests Bush would face stiff competition in a wide-open Republican field that lacks a clear front-runner.
The winner's prize: a daunting encounter with Hillary Clinton. The presumed Democratic favourite appears to have a crushing lead over the entire Republican field.