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Jeb Bush jumps in GOP race, both guns blazing

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
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MIAMI – Appearing before a raucous rally in front of thousands of supporters here Monday afternoon, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush showed he is a force to be reckoned with in the presidential election as he officially launched his campaign.

Bush, 62, wasted no time in signaling to the country not only that he believes he is ready to be president but also that the man he views as his chief competitor for the nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is unprepared for the job. He also attacked former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, with tough broadsides against her progressive ideology and her foreign policy performance.

SLIDESHOW:  Jeb Bush through the years >>

Bush is basing his candidacy on his track record as a conservative governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, hoping to win over conservatives while also making an appeal to voters outside the traditional Republican electorate: younger voters, minorities and women.

“We will lift our sights again, make opportunity common again, get events in the world moving our way again,” Bush told the crowd inside the Theodore Gibson Health Center gymnasium on the campus of Miami-Dade College’s Kendall campus. “I know we can fix this, because I’ve done it.”

It was an efficient and effective speech for Bush, who is not a charismatic public speaker but delivered the biggest remarks of his life to date with only a stumble or two. A crowd estimated at more than 3,000 by the Bush campaign was on its feet often, and very loud.

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Latino supporters wave “#Todos por Jeb” (“#All for Jeb”) banners as Jeb Bush announces is candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in Miami. Bush delivered parts of his speech in Spanish. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

They chanted “We Want Jeb!” waved inflatable “thundersticks” with the campaign’s “Jeb!” logo and held signs, some in Spanish and some in English, saying, “#Todos por Jeb” — “#All for Jeb.”

Bush touted his accomplishments as governor — “1.3 million new jobs, 4.4 percent growth, higher family income, eight balanced budgets and tax cuts eight years in a row that saved our people and businesses $19 billion.”

He, and a string of introductory speakers, talked about his work on behalf of low-income children, students with disabilities and victims of domestic violence.

But Bush and those who spoke before him also leveled a blistering critique right at the heart of what is seen as Rubio’s weakness: his youth and inexperience. Rubio, 44, is a first-term senator — like President Obama when he was elected president —and that parallel is one that Bush and his supporters will hit on time and again over the coming months.

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., greets people at a fundraising event in Boone, Iowa, Saturday. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd or filing an amendment and calling that success,” Bush said in a clear reference to Rubio. He then drew the connection between Obama and Rubio himself.

“As our whole nation has learned since 2008, executive experience is another term for preparation, and there is no substitute for that,” he said. “We are not going to clean up the mess in Washington by electing the people who either helped create it or have proven incapable of fixing it.”

An African-American minister who spoke before Bush, Dr. R.B. Holmes Jr., pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, said that “experience does matter” and that “proven leadership is important.”

And state Sen. Don Gaetz was the most direct of all, reciting a list of criticisms of Obama and making the clear comparison to Rubio.

“The presidency of the United States does not come with training wheels. The presidency of the United States should not be the first management job you apply for,” Gaetz thundered. “Jeb Bush is the Florida Republican who can win.”

Bush had tough words as well for Clinton, portraying her in the first few moments of a 27-minute speech as offering a tired continuation of Obama’s policies.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton stumps on Roosevelt Island in New York City. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

“The party now in the White House is planning a no-suspense primary, for a no-change election, to hold on to power, to slog on with the same agenda under another name,” Bush said. “That’s our opponents’ call to action this time around. That’s all they’ve got left.”

He said that Obama’s foreign policy team, including Clinton, has been “so eager to be the history makers that they have failed to be the peacemakers.”

“With their phone-it-in foreign policy, the Obama-Clinton-Kerry team is leaving a legacy of crises uncontained, violence unopposed, enemies unnamed, friends undefended and alliances unraveling,” he said.

Bush is the third member of his family to run for president. If he is successful, he would be the first person to do so after two other members of his family served as president — making history in a different way than any of the other candidates. Former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be the first woman to become president. Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) would be the first Latino-American elected to the nation’s highest office.

With his announcement coming just two days after Clinton’s on Saturday, some were calling this “dynasty weekend.”

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Columba Bush, Barbara Bush and George P. Bush look on as Jeb Bush announces his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Miami. (Photo: Larry Marano/WireImage/Getty Images)

But neither Jeb’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, who turned 91 last Friday, nor his brother George W. Bush attended the rally. It’s not clear whether the George W. will campaign for Jeb. But Bush was joined onstage by his 90-year old mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, who famously said just over a year ago that America has “had enough Bushes” at a time when she thought Jeb would not run for president.  

Bush made mention of his family’s legacy and sought to undercut the notion that he is expecting to win the nomination or the presidency simply because of his family background.

“There are good people running for president — quite a few, in fact,” Bush said. “And not one of us deserves the job by right of résumé, party, seniority, family or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test, and it’s wide open — exactly as a contest for president should be.”

Bush highlighted his biracial, bilingual family. He met his wife, Columba, in Leon, Mexico, during a 1971 study-abroad trip in high school. She spoke no English at the time. The two were married in 1974 and have three children. Their eldest child, George P. Bush, is the Texas land commissioner and is a rising political star himself.

Bush and other speakers, including George P. Bush, switched at moments during their remarks to speak entirely in Spanish.

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Jeb Bush and his family onstage Monday in Miami to announce his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. (Photo: Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Bush has staked out a more moderate position on immigration than most of his Republican rivals, but even so, during his speech pro-immigration protesters stood up in the audience wearing shirts that spelled out, “Legal status is not enough.” The rest of the crowd helped Bush immensely by cheering for him to drown out the protesters’ chants. But as the protesters were led out of the room, Bush addressed them, saying in his one unscripted remark, “The next president will pass meaningful immigration reform so that that will be solved.”

Bush is now the 11th candidate to enter the Republican field, and probably one of the last, even though he was the first to publicly state his intention to explore a run back in December. He waited six months to make it official, however, postponing federal election law limits on political contributions. As long as he remained legally undeclared, he could raise unlimited sums from donors for a super-PAC supporting him; he plans to run major components of the campaign through the super-PAC rather than the federally governed campaign.  

Bush was considered the frontrunner for most of the winter and spring, despite the plethora of other formidable Republican candidates. But over the past month, he has stumbled, and his trajectory in the aggregate of all polling has fallen. He still is at the head of the pack but seems far less invincible than he did just two months ago.

Bush struggled last month to answer questions about his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. And more recently, he shook up his campaign before it even launched, changing campaign managers and losing a top-tier digital operative, who had been rumored as the campaign’s likely digital director. Informed sources say there is significant internal discord and disorganization within the campaign.

Bush’s recent struggles have come as Rubio’s stock has risen. Rubio, a personal friend of Bush’s, was thought to be unlikely to run if Bush got into the race. But that conventional wisdom has now been upended, as is often the case in campaigns.

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Immigration-reform protesters being escorted out of auditorium after interrupting Jeb Bush’s announcement speech. (Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP)

And Bush still faces skepticism from grassroots conservatives on his positions on immigration and education. Despite his work in bringing school choice (which conservatives tend to favor) to Florida, the base is angry over his refusal to condemn the federal government’s Common Core policy. Yet there were attendees in the crowd at Bush’s event who could serve as harbingers of what the Bush campaign sees as its path to victory: working-class Latinos who were converted into fans after watching him govern in Florida.

“I think he was a wonderful governor. He did amazing things,” said Ray Perez, a 43-year-old Army veteran and former defense contractor who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and is now studying business administration at Miami-Dade. “I know his name is a concern, but that’s not fair.”

Perez said he had never been to a political event before coming to see Bush speak. Similarly, Anjelica Hassett, a 44-year-old real estate agent who was born in Nicaragua, said she has never voted before but that once she heard Bush would be running for president she went out and registered to vote.

“I have faith that Jeb is going to do something for all illegal people who have been in this country, working, for years,” she said. “I was one once. I’m an American citizen now.”

Asked about Rubio, Hassett, who said she used to hate Republicans before watching Bush govern Florida, scoffed.

“Jeb Bush is more Latino than any of these guys with Latin names. They are after their own personal fame. Jeb Bush is not.”

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Jeb Bush autographing campaign posters from a food truck after announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Bush is set to travel to early primary states this week, with a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday, a meet and greet in Iowa on Wednesday, a town hall with veterans in South Carolina on Thursday and two events in Nevada on Friday.

His announcement was a long time in coming, but Jeb Bush is clearly aiming to make up for lost time.

As for Bush’s mother, Barbara, she has changed her tune from a year ago. “America needs him, and he’s the best,” she said of Jeb in a brief appearance on Snapchat.