Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is trying to be the bridge between Hispanics and the Republican Party. (Photo by Ralph De La Cruz.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Jeb impresses.

I know many of you don’t want to hear that. Don’t want to even consider the possibility that there’s a third Bush somewhere out there, politically lurking.

But after seeing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s performance in Coral Gables last week during the two-day Hispanic Leadership Network, it has to be said.

Officially, the event was sanctioned by the political action committee American Action Network. And there were big assists from folks such as former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

But there was no question that this was Jeb’s show.

It was his town (Jeb even chided during his welcome speech that they had convened the gathering five minutes from his office). His audience (Cuban and South American business people). And his political vision.

While it has become fashionable for many Republicans to use the issue of immigration — and heavy-handed enforcement of immigration laws — as a convenient political stepladder, Jeb has been busy creating his own blueprint for the party. And for a mainstream Republican, it borders on revolutionary:

If Republicans target — er, reach out to — Hispanics by stressing the conservative values shared by the two groups (family, education and entrepreneurship), Republicans could become the party of the majority of Hispanics. Of course, the final, unspoken part of that strategy is that Republicans need to tone down the rhetoric on immigration. But … shhh! Don’t tell anyone.

The Coral Gables conference was that political vision turned into reality.

And quite honestly, I think Jeb’s onto something. He gets it. And it’s not just because he can conduct a cogent interview in both English and Spanish. He understands the issues that drive the Hispanic community — and honestly seems to share both their beliefs and concerns.

But it goes beyond his relationship with Hispanics. He’s also moderate-right, soft-spoken and civil when those qualities suddenly seem to have become the vogue following the Tucson shootings. And perhaps most importantly, with each passing month in which American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan and unemployment hovers around 10 percent, the taint of brother W fades further from popular memory.

While pushing for a vouchers-for-all education system, Gov. Rick Scott extolled the virtues of public school teachers in his keynote speech at the Hispanic Leadership Network in Coral Gables. (Photo by Ralph De La Cruz.)

Jeb seems to be the man of this moment. Which is why he’s constantly asked, sometimes almost pleadingly, in both English and Spanish, whether he will run for president in 2012 (no). And if not, then certainly in 2016 (he won’t discuss it, although he told Geraldo Rivera over the weekend that he wouldn’t rule it out. He just won’t discuss it).

Jeb’s only problem is the rest of the Republican Party.

While some Republicans in the state legislature push for a “birthright” bill that would deny citizenship to babies of illegal immigrants, Jeb asserted at the conference, “I don’t think they represent a majority of the (Republican) thinking.”

While Jeb basks in the improved condition of state education — Florida moved up to No. 5 in Education Week’s national rankings — that progress is being threatened by a projected budget shortfall of $3.6 billion. A shortfall that Republican leadership says will largely fall on education and health care. And it could get worse for education, one of Jeb’s signature “Hispanic” issues. Because, although Gov. Rick Scott extolled the virtues of public school teachers in his keynote speech in Coral Gables, he is insistent on promoting a vouchers-for-all system and providing another $2 billion in tax cuts to businesses. More money that will have to be squeezed from education.

“I’d be cautious not to gut the education budget,” Jeb said in Coral Gables.

It may make political sense, but it won’t be easy for Jeb to get the rest of the Republican establishment to buy into his Hispanic outreach strategy. Consider these three tidbits:

  • The conference was not put on by the Republican National Committee.
  • Of the three people considered frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination, only former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty showed up. And he did not impress.
  • And more people attended the panel on trade than the panel on immigration.

Yep. Jeb gets it.

The question is: Could he ever lead a party that too often doesn’t?