Jeb Bush, seen by some as a Republican candidate-in-waiting for the 2016 presidential season, has set aside normal party decorum by lamenting this year's contenders, likening them to a "circular firing squad" scaring away independent voters with right-wing rhetoric that plays on their fears.
His broadside, which took many in the party by surprise, came just as the 2012 nomination marathon is entering a critical stretch with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battling for advantage in voting on Tuesday in Arizona and Michigan. One week later, the candidates face the all-important Super Tuesday contests in 10 states.
The four candidates, who also include Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, scorched one another in a debate in Arizona on Wednesday, just as they have on the campaign trail with blizzards of mutually destructive negative advertising. Mr Romney, more than anyone, has used the airwaves to tear down any opponent who rises to threaten him.
It is a strategy that may be working, with latest polls yesterday hinting that the recent surge of Mr Santorum may now be evaporating. According to a Rasmussen poll, he now trails Mr Romney by 6 points in Michigan, losing a lead he had held there for the past two weeks.
"I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I'm wondering," Mr Bush, the former Florida Governor and brother of George W Bush, said after a speech in Dallas, Texas. "I don't think I've changed, but it's a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people's fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that's kind of where we are.
"It's important for the candidates to recognise though [that] they have to appeal to primary voters and not turn off independent voters that will be part of a winning coalition. They are very capable... but I'm kind of hopeful the primary process ends so we unite behind a candidate and eliminate the potential of a circular firing squad." He said there would not be a consensus nominee if no clear winner emerges.
Mr Romney, who won the endorsement of the Arizona Republic, last night turned his focus to the economy, delivering a set-piece speech in a Detroit sports stadium, promising to revive the economy with an across-the-board 20 per cent cut in personal income-tax rates.