Goes without saying, but Jeb Bush is a major player at #RNC2012

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Jeb Bush has been a constant, dominant presence in Florida Republican politics for the past 15 years.

Even after his tenure as governor ended in January 2007, he continued to play an influential, behind-the-scenes role on issues such as education. And as evidenced by this year’s campaigns, Republican candidates clamor for his endorsement.

But Bush appears ready to take his brand of policy-driven conservatism to a broader national audience. Bush this week will be a prominent figure at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, including giving a high-profile speech Thursday before GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes the stage to formally accept the party nomination, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

Bush started the week with interviews Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and in the Tampa Bay Times newspaper. He criticized President Obama’s economic leadership but also showed a willingness to question members of his own party about issues such as immigration and taxes.

“He’s the elephant in the room,” said Allison DeFoor, a former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and the GOP’s candidate for lieutenant governor in 1990.

Longtime Bush supporters, gathered Monday at a Florida delegation hotel in Palm Harbor, said they think he is trying to fill a gap in national politics — a gap that longtime Republican fund-raiser Mike Hightower described as an “abdication of leadership in Washington.”

“I think he just truly has such a passion for policy,” said Towson Fraser, a lobbyist who has served in a number of roles in Republican politics. “I think he sees a void, and he can’t resist filling that void with someone with substance.”

Ron Kaufman, a long-time aide to Romney, called Bush “a thought leader” in the Republican Party.

“Of all the people in the party, Jeb Bush is one of the one or two people (whom) people turn to as a thought leader in the party,” Kaufman told reporters Monday.

As the son of one president and the brother of another, Bush is hardly a new player in national politics. Also, he has long been a prominent figure in education policy circles, particularly for his views about increasing school choice and measuring student performance.

Bush said during the “Meet the Press” interview that he will talk during the convention speech about education and the importance of getting students prepared for college or careers. He clashed for years with teachers unions in Florida about his education policies, though he and Obama share at least some views on the issue.

“I’m passionate about this because I think … the American political system has become so short run in its nature,” Bush said on the Sunday show. “And we need to be much longer term in our thinking and begin to solve problems.”

But while education policy might be Bush’s passion, it has been statements about other issues, including immigration and taxes, that have drawn attention because they differed from the direction of many Republicans.

Perhaps the best example is immigration, as Republicans in places such as Arizona and Alabama have led controversial efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. Such efforts — and the sometimes-harsh debates that go along with them — have led to speculation that the fast-growing Hispanic population could become a solid Democratic voting bloc and help re-elect Obama.

Bush, whose wife is from Mexico, said during the “Meet the Press” interview that he thinks Romney can make inroads this year with a message of job growth and economic development. But he also said the GOP needs to have a “better tone going forward over the long haul.”

“You can’t ask people to join your cause and then send a signal (they’re) really not wanted,” he said. “It just doesn’t work.”

When asked if Bush was seen as a figure that keeps the party centered, Kaufman, the Romney adviser, said it isn’t about left or right, but rather “a matter of having new or innovative thoughts.” Romney and Bush have “become thoughtful leaders together. They talk a lot and they each appreciate each other’s intellect,” Kaufman said.

In the Tampa Bay Times interview, meanwhile, Bush criticized Obama for not dealing with tax reform and entitlement reform, as the nation’s fiscal problems mount. Bush indicated he could have supported a plan spearheaded by former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson that included spending cuts and increased taxes — even though a signature of Bush’s tenure as governor was cutting taxes.

He described supporting such a plan as “part of leadership. … Our biggest problem is spending, by far. But in order to get 60 votes (in the U.S. Senate) for entitlement reform and tax reform to revitalize our economy and create hope for people? That’s what leaders are supposed to do.”

Allies say Bush built credibility within the party while serving as governor, which allows him to speak out on such issues. State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said Bush earned that credibility with his work on issues such as education and fiscal reform.

“When he was governor, his numbers were off the chart,” Hightower said. “He was one of the most-respected governors in the country.”

Added incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel: “I think he’s viewed as an elder statesman in the party and in the country.”

Bush’s statements, however, also raise questions about whether he is preparing for a future run for president. “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central has even dubbed its convention coverage, “RNC 2012: The Road to Jeb Bush 2016.”

Bush said during the “Meet the Press” interview that he doesn’t think about becoming president, despite what Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show” might think.

“I’m excited about supporting Mitt Romney. He’s a great guy,” Bush said. “I look forward to working on his re-election in 2016 and making Jon Stewart awfully upset during that period of time.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.