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US elections 2016: Will the GOP back another Bush?

The son and brother of the previous presidents is a divisive figure for Republicans: he’s not welcome at the Tea Party but moderates think he’s their best chance to regain the White House

There was one man missing from an early beauty contest of possible candidates for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination in New Hampshire at the weekend but his name came up quickly anyway. And when it did the audience, made up almost entirely of grassroots conservatives, erupted in sighs and belligerent boos.

Prompted by Donald Trump, possibly the party’s most practised political provocateur, the moment threw into vivid relief the civil war that is rattling the party as jockeying for the 2016 race gets under way. He was shooting arrows at Jeb Bush and his recent assertion that illegal immigrants had mainly come into the country as “an act of love” so they could support their families. “That’s one I’ve never heard before… it’s out there,” Mr Trump scoffed.

For those of a Tea Party bent, the New Hampshire gathering was nectar as they heard speeches not just from Mr Trump but also more serious contenders for the GOP nomination, including Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz as well as Governor Mike Huckabee, who remains popular even six years after his 2008 run. Yet the unity among those in the hall belied the deep conservative-versus-moderate schism that is dividing the party as a whole.

Since the prospects of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie began to crumble under the weight of the George Washington Bridge lane-closures scandal, Mr Bush, the brother and son of two former presidents and a two-term Governor of Florida, has emerged as arguably the most viable alternative to a hard-right nominee. He has not yet confirmed whether he will run but said recently he will make a decision by the end of this year. Nowhere is speculation more fevered about a possible Bush run than in his home state. Nor is there any part of the country that knows him better even though his last day in office was in January 2007, since which time he stayed largely invisible in the private sector running a Miami-based business consultancy with clients that notably include Barclays Capital, and running two large education foundations.

Even those close to him say there is no guessing what he will do and that he probably doesn’t know himself yet. “He is obviously someone who believes in public service,” Justin Sayfie, a former spokesman for the Governor who now runs a law practice in Fort Lauderdale, says. “What he must consider now is whether he wants to continue that service from inside the private sector or does he want to do it in elected office.”

The factors in his final decision will be many. Discerning the views of his family, including Columba, his Mexican-born wife, and Barbara, his mother, is difficult. “They don’t speak publicly and they don’t talk to reporters, so there are no tea leaves to read,” Mr Sayfie says. He also has to weigh up that business of his name. There have been two Bushes in the White House already. One was not so popular. It’s a topic that comes up quickly during casual canvassing of members at the Davie Cooper City Republican Club, in Florida’s Broward County, which held its monthly meeting last Thursday night. Sharon, who doesn’t want her full name used, is dismissive of a Bush run. “We don’t have a monarchical government here,” she says sharply.

But standing beside her, Walt Joliff, 75, is more measured: “I would welcome him back but it’s true that there is a lot of negativity about the Bush name and whether we want another Bush.”

As plugged into Republican politics as anyone in this part of the state is Tom Truex, chairman of the Broward County Republican Party. He sees no downsides that Mr Bush couldn’t overcome. “People feel passionately about him, some are passionately against him but most of the people I am talking to are passionately in favour,” he says. “A lot of people think he has a darned good chance of being president and a lot of people would be pleased.”

Those like Mr Truex want Mr Bush to be the standard-bearer for the moderate and establishment wing of the Republican Party because they don’t believe a Tea Party candidate could win against the likely Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton.

Yet they also insist that his record has actually been conservative. As Governor he cut taxes (and government services) sharply, opened the public school system to private competition, allowed more death-row executions than his predecessors without once offering clemency and took strong stances on limiting abortion.

“He has probably the most sterling conservative record as Governor as any other elected in the last 10 years,” says Mr Sayfie, who has known Mr Bush for more than two decades and dismisses those who say the party has shifted too far to the right for Mr Bush to become its leader. Mr Sayfie is equally scornful of the suggestion that he might now be too rusty and reluctant a warrior to do battle with the likes of Cruz, Paul or even Trump. “Anyone who underestimates his political instincts, his abilities as a campaigner or his policy expertise would be making a big mistake.”

And as the national party ponders its own list of pros and cons, there is something else it will need to remember. Mr Bush’s base is here in Florida, a state that more than any other is vital to the mathematics of being elected president. If he were to run, survive the primaries and clinch the nomination it is hard to imagine that the state wouldn’t be in his pocket. “If he didn’t win Florida, that would be a pretty bad sign, wouldn’t it?” Mr Truex asks.

As John Grant, a former state senator and one-time adviser to the former Governor, noted last week, right now there is no saying that Ms Clinton wouldn’t take Florida in 2016 just like President Barack Obama managed to twice. “Jeb, and probably only Jeb, can change that, and in my book, whoever carries Florida wins the White House.”