George P. Bush is talking up his dad Jeb – but he knows he’ll have to endure some gentle ribbing about his grandfather and uncle first.
“We are lucky to have George Bush here. That’s George P. Bush,” quips state Sen. Katrina Shealy, who introduces the Texas land commissioner to the crowd at Lizard’s Thicket, an eatery where locals talk politics over fried chicken, giblet and cornbread gravy and five kinds of pie.
Bush grins but stays silent. “Yeah,” he later concedes to a reporter, “I’ve heard just about every George Bush joke that there possibly is.”
That’s because the next-generation bearer of the powerful political name has been helping relatives run since age 3, when he clutched a balloon and sported a campaign T-shirt as his grandfather, George H.W. Bush, launched his first presidential bid from a Houston park in 1979.
But never has George P.’s role as a political surrogate been as important as it is in the 2016 primary campaign. The 39-year-old is traveling the country – and flexing his muscle as a rising political star in Texas – as he attempts to help his father become the third Bush to win the nomination and then the White House.
He’ll be in Iowa on Saturday, helping to open Jeb Bush’s campaign office in West Des Moines.
“It’s definitely more emotional,” George P. Bush said of campaigning for his dad rather than his grandfather or uncle, former President George W. Bush. “It’s just a little closer to home.”
George P. Bush suggested that doing so may be even more draining than running for the little-known but powerful job of Texas land commissioner, which he won in a landslide last fall.
“When you’re a candidate, you know the criticism is going to come,” he said in an interview. “But when it’s a relative, and it’s a man who you admire who’s your father, it changes things.”
The pair hasn’t yet hit campaigned together, though they talk frequently by phone. Bush spoke at his father’s campaign kickoff in June, but Jeb was in Florida while his son made a recent, one-day swing through South Carolina, which holds the South’s first presidential primary. He was in the state capital of Columbia to file paperwork putting his father’s name on the state ballot, then traveled to Lexington for the event with Shealy.
“George P. Bush knows Jeb Bush better than anyone in the country. That’s a strong surrogate,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
The younger Bush says he’s singularly focused on his “day job” in Texas, a post he assumed in January. He manages 13 million acres of state public land and mineral rights for activities like oil and natural gas drilling. In addition to South Carolina and now Iowa, Bush’s only other trip outside Texas on his dad’s behalf has been a quick one to Nevada.
Still, campaigning comes naturally to Bush. He was 12 when he led the 1988 Republican National Convention in the Pledge of Allegiance. His mother, Columba, is from Mexico and George P., like his dad, speaks fluent Spanish. In 1992, he concluded a brief floor address at the party convention by screaming “Viva Bush!”
Bush is photogenic enough to have been fourth on People Magazine’s 100 Most Eligible Bachelors list one year. He’s married now with a 2-year-old son and another boy 4 months old.
He sprinkled Spanish into his speeches during the 2000 and 2004 Republican national conventions, and campaigned for his uncle both cycles, reaching out to Hispanic voters.
George P. Bush also campaigned for his dad in Florida, where Jeb Bush served two terms as governor – but hadn’t before taken the national stage while doing so.
“I almost think it’s more difficult now given the position he’s in, since I think he’s more conservative than his dad,” said Eric Opiela a former executive director of the Texas Republican Party and a University of Texas law school classmate who remembers Bush being gone a lot, campaigning for his uncle’s 2000 presidential bid.
“He has a very difficult line to toe now,” Opiela said, “given that he’s a statewide elected official in a state as conservative as Texas.”
The younger Bush describes himself as a “movement conservative” and was an early endorser of longshot Senate candidate Ted Cruz, now a senator and one of his father’s primary race rivals. But George P. also has struck a more moderate tone on immigration and environmental issues, and says his dad can unite the often feuding factions of the Republican Party by using his conservative gravitas to stand up to tea party activists.
Regardless of whether he helps his father win the presidency, though, Bush’s political prospects look bright to many observers, including Moore, the South Carolina GOP chairman.
“I was thinking, Gov. Abbott in Texas now, so maybe the 2022 campaign for you?” Moore joked with Bush, referring to Republican Greg Abbott, who took office in January.
Bush grinned but stayed silent. Like the George Bush jokes, that’s something he’s heard before, too.