Can Jeb Bush become a top Republican contender? Maybe...

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, poses with Citadel cadets after giving a speech on foreign policy and national defense on the campus of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, poses with Citadel cadets after giving a speech on foreign policy and national defense on the campus of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. AP

Sure, Jeb Bush can become a leading Republican presidential candidate. It’s gonna be tough, but hardly impossible.

More and more, voters want someone with government experience and sound political judgment. As election days get closer, they’ll seek more depth and nuance about issues. And Bush and his backers also bring a huge pile of campaign cash and a proven network of insiders well-schooled in politics and policy.

Bush remains a long-shot, and polls still show him mired deep in single digits. The good news? “You’re seeing a little of that (some gains) now,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which surveys in New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state.

But, he added, “I don’t think it’s because of anything he’s doing.” In the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks, voters are looking more for a candidate with policy know-how.

Bush, the former Florida governor, has noted that his father, George H. W. Bush, was far down in Republican presidential polls in 1979, but won the Iowa caucus in January 1980. He wound up as Ronald Reagan’s vice presidential running mate that year, and eight years later was elected president.

Ronald Reagan led George H. W. Bush, 41 to 9 percent, in Gallup’s national poll of Republican voters two weeks before the 1980 Iowa caucus. Bush won the caucus.

Get ready for a rerun, say Jeb Bush campaign officials. “Governor Bush is outworking everyone in the field (and) he has the best proven, conservative record in the field,” said spokesman Tim Miller.

Maybe. Here’s why they could be right – even though all signs at the moment point the other way:

1. Experience matters. Since the Paris attacks, “people who have some political experience have benefited,” said Paleologos. “Voters want someone more methodical, who can navigate the political landscape.”

That’s cost neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who’s dropped in recent polls, but it’s hardly an absolute. Real estate mogul Donald Trump keeps talking tough and remains far ahead of Bush. And Bush is hamstrung by his family’s past; his brother, President George W. Bush, led the nation into the unpopular Iraq war. 

2. Voters get serious. Polls in early voting states say most Republican voters have yet to make a final decision. 2016 could be following a familiar pattern: Early front-runners are the candidates who best express voters’ frustration and outrage, but when it comes time to vote, they pick the more somber candidate best suited for the world’s most powerful position. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean won Democratic hearts in 2003, only to finish a distant third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses.

Bush, though, could confront a new dynamic in 2016, as Trump shows no sign of fading. “Ask about specific issues and Bush does well, but in terms of making voters feel good by stressing strength and power, that’s where Trump comes in,” said Wayne Lesperance, professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H.

3. Florida beckons. Suppose, as is quite possible, the February contests produce no clear front-runner. On March 15, five big states, including Florida, vote. Bush has won two statewide elections in Florida, and should he win the state’s primary that day and do well elsewhere he could emerge as the mainstream Republican favorite. As the race then moves to New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, California and other less conservative states, it could become a battle with Trump or another favorite of staunch conservatives, and Bush would be well-positioned.

The trouble is that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a presidential rival, has also won a statewide Florida election, and it was in 2010. Bush last won back in 2002. Three recent statewide Republican presidential polls had Bush fifth in the Florida GOP presidential race.

8.9% Jeb Bush’s showing in the latest Florida Atlantic University Business and Economics Polling Initiative survey of Florida Republicans. Bush is fifth. Trump leads.

4. Command of issues. Bush can talk with authority on taxes, immigration and a wide variety of issues as few of his rivals can. He can cite his Florida record as a consistent but not doctrinaire conservative.

The problem here? Too much expertise. Bush is not a dynamic speaker, and voters want not only information but inspiration. Rubio, said Lesperance, offers that. And Bush has stumbled at times recently. Earlier this month, he said preference should be given to Syrian Christian refugees, as well as all women and children, though Muslims should not be barred.

Jeb Bush is the third Bush to run for President of the United States, but his views on key issues often differ from his father and brother. Find out where Jeb stands on immigration reform, ISIS, the minimum wage and gay marriage. (video by Natalie

5. Money counts. Bush and his supporters raised an estimated $127 million through Sept. 30, more than anyone else. While the first contests in February are a test of personal campaigning, strategies change dramatically in March. On March 1, Republicans in 11 states vote. Advertising and organization will matter.

“It’s hard not to take seriously a candidate with as much money as Jeb Bush has,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

But he added, “Are the odds in his favor? No.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid