Jeb Bush will get the question Friday, but don't expect a definitive answer.
Bush will say something. But his speech and Q&A session won't provide a "yes" or "no" about the former Florida governor's plans for 2016, forcing everyone to continue reading tea leaves for clues about whether he'll attempt to become the third Bush to serve as president.
Interest in his intentions is so great that a total of 22 local and national media outlets — including CNN, FOX and Univision — plan to cover Bush's appearance before a filled-to-capacity gathering of top South Florida business executives and political leaders.
If Bush decides to run, he'll instantly become a Top Tier candidate, possibly the front runner, for the Republican nomination. Looking farther ahead to the general election, he's the Republican that many Democrats fear the most.
"Anyone who's being honest would say he'd be a formidable candidate," said Andrew Weinstein, a Coral Springs lawyer and Florida Democratic Party finance chairman who was a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama. "He certainly would be a formidable general election candidate."
Will he or won't he?
Speculation about Bush's plans has surged in 2014 as the fortunes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have declined under the glare of criminal, legislative and media investigations sparked by his administration's closure of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge in an apparent act of political retaliation.
Christie had marketed himself as a more pragmatic, less doctrinaire, action-oriented problem-solver. Bush supporters see him in a similar mold, and Christie's slide may allow him to fulfill that role.
Bush, 61, who lives in Coral Gables, has said he'll decide late in 2014 with these criteria: "Can I do it joyfully?" and "Is it right for my family?"
Without clear signals from Bush himself, fans and detractors fill the vacuum with theories.
The reality is that no one — including Bush himself — knows the answer for sure, said Justin Sayfie, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer-lobbyist, publisher of the online political news site Sayfie Review, and adviser to Bush when he was governor. "All the people I talk to are trying to put odds on the likelihood of his running for president, and it's an impossible game because he is in the process of making that decision."
Quest for the nomination
Besides his own background as a two-term governor, as the son of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, and brother of George W. Bush, the 43rd president, he'd have instant credibility and the ability to raise mountains of campaign cash by mobilizing the family network of financial supporters.
Though Bush governed Florida as a conservative, the Republican Party has shifted much farther to the right since he was last on a ballot, when he won re-election in 2002.
A March 6 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Bush topping a list of nine potential candidates among self-identified moderate Republicans. He was seventh among very conservative Republicans.
"Jeb would be a superb candidate for the Republican brand," said Mark Foley, a Palm Beach County Republican who served 12 years in Congress.
Mike Jackson, the CEO of AutoNation who will lead Friday's post-speech Q&A before the Broward Workshop, thinks Bush would be a good president. "Jeb Bush is a pragmatic problem-solver. He does his homework and genuinely understands the complexity of issues and has the ability to find common ground for the greater good," Jackson said via email.
But Bush's positions on two big issues — support for immigration reform and support for the Common Core curriculum — are anathema to much of the tea party and other grassroots conservatives. Common Core, an effort to alter the way critical subjects are taught and tested, is seen by many conservatives as a federal takeover of local schools.
Karin Hoffman of Lighthouse Point, founder of the tea party group DC Works for US, said Bush "wasn't palatable" before Common Core. "When he made that his core issue, then in essence he became enemy No. 1 to the grassroots."
The general election
To many voters, the Bush name is toxic.
"The problem for him is he is a Bush. It's unfair. His brother's record as president is still a problem for the party. Maybe history will be kinder to President George W. Bush, but right now it is not a plus," said Nicol C. Rae, a former Florida International University political science professor specializing in the presidency who is now a dean at Montana State University. "The perception of his brother's presidency is a failure."
But Anita Mitchell, chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said as dissatisfaction with Obama's job performance grows, more people are looking more fondly at Bush's brother's time in office. And Sayfie said time and Jeb Bush's record would play roles.
"President Bush 41 was defeated in 1992 and George W. Bush was elected the president eight years later. And in 2016, we'll be eight years after George W. Bush left office," Sayfie said. "Eight years in politics is an eternity."
Still, Bush is the one Republican candidate who could put the Hispanic vote in play, a critical factor for either party in winning the White House, strategists say.
While his support for immigration reform might hurt him among some Republican primary voters, it'll likely be a plus in the general election. Plus, he's fluent in Spanish and his wife is Mexican-American.
"Jeb Bush could plausibly claim to be the first Hispanic president of the United States. This is an individual that is not only completely comfortable with the community but considers himself Hispanic to some extent," said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi International, a South Florida-based consulting firm that has worked for Democrats, including producing Spanish-language campaign ads for Obama.
Bush at the top of the ticket could also increase Republican chances of winning the biggest prize: Florida, the largest swing state in the country, which awards 29 electoral votes — more than 10 percent of the total needed to win the presidency. Polling has shown Democrat Hillary Clinton ahead of Bush in Florida, but surveys also show he's the candidate with the best chance of winning the Sunshine State.
"He checks a lot of the boxes for a Republican nominee," Rae said. "If he gets into the race, he immediately, I think, becomes the big dog in the field."
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