Jeb Bush, the popular former Florida governor, said he will “stay neutral” in the Republican presidential primary while warning his party’s candidates to leave the “circular firing squad” of their primary debates behind and start appealing to a broader audience of voters.
Bush’s remarks during an interview with Bloomberg News come as the contest advances to Florida, where the Jan. 31 primary will take the race into its biggest and most diverse arena yet. The winner will be awarded all of the state’s 57 delegates.
The comments address the often-acrimonious rhetoric of a GOP race in which Newt Gingrich's wide win over Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary on Saturday has seen three winners in three milestone contests launching the primary season: former Pennsylvania Sen. won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, and former House Speaker Gingrich won the South Carolina primary on Saturday by a huge margin.
Romney and Gingrich have courted Bush’s endorsement in recent days, he said. In December, his father, former President George H.W. Bush, told the Houston Chronicle that he was giving Romney an “unofficial” endorsement. John H. Sununu Sr., the senior Bush’s former White House chief of staff, is serving as a surrogate for the Romney campaign.
The younger Bush described both Romney and Gingrich as “credible” candidates in a November contest with President Barack Obama.
“I intend to help whoever wins the nomination,” the former governor said.
At the same time, Bush said his party’s candidates should adjust the “tone” of their debate on issues such as illegal immigration to start appealing to independent-minded voters in “swing states” such as Florida with a history of voting for either major party. These voters are likely to decide the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.
The candidates "are going to have 10 days to come make their case, hopefully in a way that positions the candidates for the general election as well, which seems to be less the focus now,” Bush said in the telephone interview with Bloomberg News.
“Candidates are making lasting impressions on voters, not just primary voters, in how they campaign,” he said from his office in Miami. “You have to remember that in a state like Florida, independent voters will decide the election. You have to maintain your principles but have a broader appeal.”
“We’re sort of in the circular firing squad right now,” Bush said of divisive disputes among the Republican candidates.
Florida is not only the biggest primary contest so far but also an important win for any presidential nominee.
Obama won Florida by 2.8 percentage points in 2008 with the help of swing-voters in the central region around Orlando and also younger Cuban-Americans less aligned with Republicans than are their parents. Florida also backed Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, by 5 percentage points in 2004 and by just 537 votes in 2000 after a fight over disputed ballots that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Florida also is home to an ethnically diverse electorate. With a population of 18.8 million, Hispanics account for 22.5 percent of the Sunshine State’s residents, blacks 15 percent.
The debate over immigration laws in the Republican Party could be a problem for its nominee, Bush said. Nationally, exit polls showed that 67 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama in 2008 and 31 percent backed Republican John McCain.
“That could be an issue in the general election that plays out in a negative way for Republican candidates,” Bush said. “In swing-states, Hispanic voters are increasingly the swing voters, and if you, by your tone more than anything else, send a signal that ‘you’re not wanted on my team’ — and I’m not saying any candidate has done that — you could alienate voters that could be part of the winning” formula.
Romney has referred to benefits such as in-state Texas college tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants as “magnets” encouraging more immigrants. In a Sept. 7 debate at the Reagan Library in California, Romney said: “We cannot give amnesty to those who have come here illegally.” Those who have arrived recently, he said: “You just go back home.” Those here for a long time with children “and so forth, you let stay enough time to organize their affairs and go home.”
Gingrich, at a Nov. 22 debate in Washington, D.C., said he supports allowing some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. years ago to remain — saying that, although those newly arrived with no U.S. ties should be deported, those who entered decades ago, have children and paid taxes shouldn’t be uprooted.
The former Georgia congressman toughed his stance in South Carolina by vowing to uphold the state’s anti-illegal immigration law, which is being challenged in federal court and the U.S. Department of Justice for its impact on minority voters.
“I don’t agree with Mitt’s views on immigration in their totality, but that’s OK,” Bush said. “My not endorsing him does not relate to any particular issue.”
“I like Mitt Romney; I think he would be a very credible challenger to President Obama,” said Bush, adding the same of Gingrich — “and so would Rick Santorum, by the way.”
Yet Bush, fielding requests for endorsements from Romney and Gingrich in recent days and from former Santorum longer ago, said: “It’s a big decision. Florida is going to play a big role in who the party’s nominee is. I think the voters can make up their own minds.”
Endorsements are sought for a reason: In 2008, McCain and Romney tied in opinion polling nearing the Jan. 29 Florida primary. Then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed McCain four days before the election, and McCain defeated Romney by 5 percentage points, essentially clinching the nomination.
Bush, who served as governor from 1999-2007, left in good standing. In a Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released Dec. 26, 2006, 21 percent of those surveyed rated Bush as a “great governor,” 36 percent as a “good governor.”
The year before the 2008 Florida primary, Bush introduced Romney to advisers and friends as a worthy candidate but stopped short of endorsing anyone. In this year’s primary, “I’m going to stay neutral,” he said. ’’I have a lot of friends supporting all the varying candidates, but more importantly I think the voters ought to make the determination.’’
Romney was running twice as strongly as Gingrich and Santorum in a CNN/Time magazine poll of likely Republican voters in Florida taken Jan. 13-17, with Romney supported by 43 percent, Santorum 19 percent and Gingrich 18 percent. That was well before Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, a prize claimed by every Republican nominated for president since 1980.
In Florida, as in the rest of the nation, Bush says, voters this year are most mindful of the economy.
“The broader issues of how to grow the economy and how to get back to a saner fiscal policy would be the two drivers,” he said. “That is so overwhelmingly on the minds of people.”
Florida’s economic health has declined by 12.4 percent since the first quarter of 2009, when Obama was inaugurated, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States. The state’s home prices have declined 22.5 percent in the period.
The debate within the Republican primary over Romney’s success at Bain Capital LLC has made Bush “kind of dizzy,” he said. Romney should disclose his tax returns, as Gingrich has, and should be “talking about his successes” in Florida.
“He is clearly uncomfortable talking about his own success, which is natural,” Bush said of Romney, a multimillionaire. “At the same time, I don’t think he has anything to be ashamed of. What a wonderful success story. It should stand as an example of American exceptionalism.”
Ultimately, Bush said, the rigor of the campaign should make the nominee stronger. Looking ahead to the Republican National Convention on Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, Fla., Bush said of the contest: “I’d like it not to go all the way to August.”
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