Mitt Romney’s tortured triumph in Michigan put him back in the GOP driver’s seat – but that hasn’t quelled the desire among some Republicans to trade up.
Yes, Republicans are still pining for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush despite his repeated and vehement refusal to be sucked into the 2012 Republican vortex.
And Democrats continue to cast a wary eye on a guy they see as more dangerous – and capable of connecting with middle-class and Latino voters – than Romney.
The Bush murmurs persist, even as a resilient Romney marches toward Super Tuesday with a commanding lead in cash, delegates and momentum over a sagging Rick Santorum.
“I have the perfect candidate – Jeb Bush. But he’s not running,” former George W. Bush chief of staff Andy Card told Charlie Rose on CBS on Wednesday, echoing the sentiments of many in his party.
“What Democrat would not worry about a popular leader from a critical state who sounds pretty moderate and can rescue the GOP from its anti-Latino death grip?” asked former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, who said he’s yet to find a Democratic elder who thinks the GOP is truly “unhinged” enough to consider ditching Romney for Bush.
Bush – who has refused to endorse Romney in 2012 as he did in 2008 and whose son endorsed Jon Huntsman – has fanned the flames himself, possibly to whet his party’s appetite for a 2016 run. After keeping a low profile during the hotly contested Florida primary in January, he popped up last week at the height of the Romney-Santorum duel in Michigan to declare his problems with the GOP presidential field.
“I used to be a conservative and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, 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,” Bush told a gathering in Dallas last Thursday, according to FOX News.
“I think that changes when we get to the general election – I hope,” added Bush, who has personally urged Romney to moderate his rhetoric on illegal immigration for fear of completely alienating Hispanic voters in states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
That got the attention of conservatives including Ann Coulter, who slammed him of prepping for a campaign, and Obama campaign officials who found his timing curious.
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and a friend of Bush, said she saw the former governor last Sunday and he laughed off any idea that he’ll jump in the game.
But even Navarro couldn’t resist indulging in a little starry-eyed speculation of what might have been.
“Why is he a fearful figure? You know, anybody who knows Jeb Bush and who’s heard Jeb Bush understands there’s a certain inspirational quality to him,” she said in an interview.
“He is smart, he is scary smart, and he has got a national network of supporters that he could turn on with the flip of a switch. And nobody could hold Obama’s feet to the fire in the Latino community like Jeb Bush.”
That opinion has considerable bipartisan support. “Don’t buy the bulls– about us not being worried about Jeb,” added a veteran Democratic operative. “He’s a tough matchup even if his last name is Bush.”
Bush has said repeatedly that he isn’t running and the people around him say he couldn’t pull it off at this late date even if he wanted to. (“If Jeb had any intention of competing for the Republican nomination, he would have been at it from day one,” Navarro said. “Jeb does not play games.”)
Karl Rove, another Bush fan, recently wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed declaring the possibility of a brokered convention – a scenario that could theoretically result in a Bush candidacy – comparable to finding life on Pluto, although he didn’t rule out a contested convention where delegates shift their votes.
But Bush has said no to anyone who asked whether he’s interested, including his son George P. Bush.
Operatives in both parties say he’d be crazy to jump in now instead of waiting four years, when his Democratic opponent won’t have the benefits of incumbency.
But if 2012 has proven anything, it’s that logic isn’t always the most important thing. Republican operatives, speaking to POLITICO on condition of anonymity, talk about Bush in the glowing tones of a potential spouse who got away – and seems perfect in comparison to the person they stare at across their coffee every morning.
Likewise, Democrats have been gaming out the possibility of an Obama-Bush face-off, just as they have with other no-thanks Republicans, including Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels.
One third-party Democratic group was so concerned about Bush that it recently paid for a poll to gauge his performance in a head-to-head matchup against Obama, according to a Democrat briefed on the poll.
The survey revealed nothing that public polling hasn’t already covered – that Obama enjoys a substantial lead and that the Bush surname is still toxic.
That it was undertaken at all shows the extent of the concern over a possible Bush candidacy and, more important, a lingering uncertainty – even a touch of anxiety – in Democratic circles about Romney’s ability to make it over the finish line.
The Obama campaign loves watching Mitt Romney squirm in the spotlight – but they don’t want to see him so irretrievably damaged that it draws better candidates into the fray.
And while many inside the Obama campaign are itching to see the race resolved – so they can target Romney exclusively and hone their fighting skills – the prevailing sentiment is that the GOP infighting is a gift from the political gods.
“On some level, I’d love to get this thing going,” said a senior party official, quickly adding, “I know that sounds crazy, but it would be nice to lock Romney in.”
Obama’s brain trust was rooting for a Santorum victory in Michigan and were disappointed that efforts by unions and local Democrats to coax party members into cross-registering to vote for Santorum fell short.
But they were pleased with the way the Michigan primary went down – Romney’s two-Cadillacs-and-just-right-trees speech to an empty football stadium, the embrace of the polarizing immigration crusader Gov. Jan Brewer in Arizona, the $4.2 million burn to win his home state.
And they have watched gleefully as Obama’s approval rating in the state has ballooned to 16 points in the latest Public Policy Polling survey – in part because of Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout.
“In 2008, the protracted primary allowed us to build our organization across the country and lay out an affirmative vision,” said Obama 2012 communications director Ben LaBolt.
“That’s not what the Republicans have done – they haven’t invested in organization and they’re leapfrogging to the right of each other on issues from Medicare to immigration,” he added. “Their primary has been an echo chamber where they have debated who is the most committed to tea party orthodoxy rather than laying out a plan to create jobs and restore economic security for the middle class, the issues most Americans are focused on.”
Romney, for his part, cast Tuesday’s 3-point win in Michigan as a narrow but important benchmark, another brick in the road to inevitability.
Despite a recent spate of good polls and encouraging economic data, Obama remains vulnerable, especially if Republicans get past their intraparty food fight to focus on the president’s inability to bring unemployment below 8 percent and a widely held belief that he pushed through health reform in lieu of working on the economy.
But Democrats, including those who sense Obama’s weakness, watched Romney’s speech Tuesday night with a sense of relief that Bush wasn’t the man at the podium.
“I think anybody who’s legitimate would make it a race with Obama at this point,” said a former adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2008. “If they did get someone who was reasonably grown-up now and – poof – we got a race. … And Jeb’s not just anybody, he’s got damned good skills, he can raise money and even people who hated his brother concede he’s the smartest Bush.”