Strug­gling to make 2016 about Jeb, not Bush

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - ED O'KEEFE ed.okeefe@wash­post.com

ken­neb­unkport, maine— A ban­ner in the town square says “Happy 90th Bar­bara Bush.” Post­cards read “Ken­neb­unkport: 2 pres­i­dents, 1 town.” A lo­cal gift shop is sell­ing unof­fi­cial Jeb Bush 2016 mag­nets.

In this coastal ham­let made fa­mous by Ge­orge H.W. Bush and his cig­a­rette boat, it is hard to es­cape the Bush fam­ily — but Jeb Bush is try­ing hard to do so.

Af­ter fes­tiv­i­ties this week­end to cel­e­brate his mother’s 90th birth­day, Bush will jet over­seas for a for­eign-pol­icy tour and then launch his 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign 1,500 miles to the south, in Miami.

The iconic fam­ily com­pound here, called Walker’s Point, is a fit­ting metaphor for what has emerged as Jeb Bush’s cen­tral po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge: how far to dis­tance him­self from his fam­ily’s po­lit­i­cal le­gacy.

The past month has brought into stark re­lief the fun­da­men­tal dilemma posed by Bush’s lin­eage, even as his front-run­ner sta­tus fades. He re­peat­edly stum­bled to an­swer ques­tions about the now-un­pop­u­lar Iraq war started by his brother and has been vis­i­bly con­flicted about whether to em­brace or play down the poli­cies and rep­u­ta­tions of his clos­est rel­a­tives.

He con­ceded last week­end to CBS that dis­tanc­ing him­self from his brother Ge­orge W. Bush “is not some­thing I’m com­fort­able do­ing.”

But when asked last Tues­day by Fox News whether he’ll use his brother on the cam­paign trail, he said: “Ab­so­lutely. I will usemy brother, my sis­ter, ev­ery rel­a­tive, ev­ery per­son I can.”

On pa­per, Jeb Bush’s record— two terms as gover­nor of a large swing state with a con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ing record— seems ex­actly what Repub­li­cans would want. But the party faith­ful are in­creas­ingly seek­ing younger, fresher can­di­dates— they’re “Bushed out,” as Bar­bara Bush has told vis­i­tors here in re­cent years.

And so when Jeb Bush’s an­tic­i­pated pres­i­den­tial bid be­gins June 15, he will seek to set him­self apart from his brother and fa­ther — an ef­fort that will form one of the abid­ing themes of the im­pend­ing cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to aides and close friends.

He will make his an­nounce­ment at a Miami com­mu­nity col­lege un­der the moniker of his nick­name, leav­ing the sur­name be­hind. There prob­a­bly won’t be “Bush” on the “Jeb 2016” cam­paign para­pher­na­lia. On stage will be his Mex­i­can-born wife, Columba, and their three grown chil­dren. Nei­ther of Bush’s par­ents will at­tend the an­nounce­ment, and aides won’t say whether any of his sib­lings will, ei­ther.

Later, his two sons — not his fa­ther or brother — are ex­pected to play ac­tive and vis­i­ble roles in the cam­paign.

Al Car­de­nas, a long­time Bush friend, said that polls have tight­ened be­cause me­dia at­ten­tion is too fo­cused on Bush’s fam­ily his­tory and not on his record as Florida gover­nor. “It’s about Bush, not Jeb,” he said.

But once peo­ple learn more about his time as gover­nor, Car­de­nas said, “then it will be­come more about Jeb, not Bush.”

Bush has told vot­ers re­peat­edly in re­cent months, “I have to show what’s inmy heart” re­gard­ing his fam­ily. But he also said re­cently that a pres­i­den­tial run “can’t be about the past; it can’t be aboutmy mom and dad, ormy brother, who I love. It has to be about the ideas I be­lieve in to move our coun­try for­ward.”

Here in Ken­neb­unkport, the prospect of an­other Bush in the White House in­trigues lo­cal res­i­dents, many of whom say they don’t know Ge­orge and Bar­bara’s sec­ond-old­est son that well.

Jeb Bush usu­ally vis­its Maine once a year to see his par­ents, play early-morn­ing rounds of golf and visit lo­cal haunts such as the HB Pro­vi­sions gen­eral store. He has told vot­ers that he rarely takes lengthy va­ca­tions and — un­like his brother’s Craw­ford, Tex., ranch — he has no va­ca­tion es­tate at the mo­ment. He and his fam­ily usu­ally spend their Christ­mas va­ca­tion on Gas­par­illa Is­land in south­west Florida, some­times joined by his par­ents.

“I think Jeb’s the only one I re­ally don’t know,” said John Down­ing, who served as the lo­cal York County, Maine, chair­man for the Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Ge­orge W. Bush pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. “I’ve not seen him around.”

“From ev­ery­thing I can gather, he’s been noth­ing but a good gover­nor of the state of Florida, cer­tainly a good fa­ther and hus­band,” Down­ing said about Jeb Bush. “I think those things are very pos­i­tive about him.”

Down­ing, who is also a real es­tate agent, said lo­cal busi­nesses are pon­der­ing how a third Bush pres­i­dency might pro­vide an­other jolt of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

“We’ll take any­thing that helps the home val­ues go up,” he said.

De­spite not com­ing of­ten, Bush ap­pears to feel the pull of the fam­ily’s coastal head­quar­ters. Af­ter this week­end, Bush is ex­pected to re­turn July 9 for a two-day “retreat” with fundrais­ing “cochairs” who help him se­cure at least $27,000 in dona­tions, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who have re­ceived in­vi­ta­tions. The hope is to raise as much as $5 mil­lion for his cam­paign by the end of July, said one Bush sup­porter, who was not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about the plans. By then, a new home be­ing built for him at the fam­ily com­pound will prob­a­bly be ready for guests.

On Thurs­day at Walker’s Point, con­struc­tion work­ers could be seen climb­ing lad­ders around the new home be­ing built for Jeb’s use. A large, yel­low truck was seen back­ing away from the site, while a bull­dozer was parked be­hind it.

The $1.4 mil­lion, two-story cottage — in most places it would be called a large house — sits on a 1.3-acre plot just south of sev­eral much smaller cot­tages also used by Bush fam­ily mem­bers. Aides said that the new home will be oc­cu­pied by other rel­a­tives and guests when Jeb isn’t in town.

To the south of the new home is a ranch-style struc­ture hous­ing Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s of­fice. On the south­ern­most point sits the iconic fam­ily home, where the 41st pres­i­dent and for­mer first lady live with un­ob­structed views of the At­lantic Ocean.

Above it all flies an Amer­i­can flag, with the flags of Maine and Texas bil­low­ing be­neath. If the Lone Star state’s colors are fly­ing, Ge­orge and Bar­bara are in town. They’re usu­ally here ev­ery May to Oc­to­ber, fam­ily spokesman Jim McGrath said.

El­iz­a­beth Spahr, a mem­ber of the Ken­neb­unkport Con­ser­va­tion Trust, was at a nearby over­look weed­ing and prun­ing a planter next to a me­mo­rial built by lo­cals to honor Ge­orge H.W. Bush.

Spahr said she has met sev­eral of the fam­ily mem­bers and is most fond of Laura Bush. Bar­bara Bush is seen most morn­ings walk­ing her dogs on a nearby beach.

Look­ing over at the com­pound, she said: “I guess they’re build­ing a new home for Jeb. It’s aw­fully big.”

When asked about Jeb Bush’s pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions, she turned back to her weed­ing. “I don’t have an opin­ion on that,” she said.

JIM COLE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jeb Bush fishes in­Maine in 1989 with his fa­ther, Pres­i­dent Ge­orgeH. W. Bush, right, brother Ge­orgeW. Bush and a Se­cret Ser­vice agent, left. To­day, the likely GOP pres­i­den­tial hope­ful seeks more dis­tance.

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