The Nevadans waiting outside a quiet strip mall here — more out of curiosity than fandom — did not know exactly who he was. Which son is he? Does he live in Texas, or in Florida like his dad? And what’s a land commissioner, anyway?
On Wednesday, these potential primary voters and others got their first glimpse of George P. Bush, and vice versa. The eldest son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did not let the introduction go to waste, using his inaugural trip as a presidential campaign surrogate to pitch his dad’s White House potential in terms just as political as personal.
“President Obama and Hillary Clinton want government to run your health care. My dad believes that you and your doctor should decide your health care,” George P. Bush said during a stop later in the day in Las Vegas. “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama believe that the problems that exist in our country can be solved by Washington, D.C. My dad believes that the problems in the country are Washington, D.C.”
He had on hand two staffers from his dad’s campaign to help him out in tricky territory, but he appeared to hold his own, rattling off statistics about his dad’s gubernatorial tenure, dabbling in the finer points of foreign policy and breaking down the GOP nominating process in Nevada. Just 10,000 voters, he said, could help his father win the state’s caucuses.
David Buell, former chairman of the Washoe County GOP, had to chuckle as he reflected on George P. Bush’s wide-ranging stump speech in Reno. “I expected George today to just talk about what a great dad” he has, Buell said.
George P. Bush’s role within his father’s campaign is anything but set in stone. People around him have emphasized that he is focused full-time on serving as Texas land commissioner, no doubt aware of the perception that the rising-star Texan is already chasing the national spotlight.
He easily won election to the statewide post last year, entering the family business as the head of the state agency that manages land and natural resources in the public domain. But several months into the job, he is already being pressed about his political future. “My goals are to serve in the office I’m in right now,” Bush told a Nevadan who approached him after his event in Reno.
During his trip, he told Nevadans he would make it back when he could. In a statement Wednesday, campaign spokeswoman Emily Benavides said the younger Bush is “proud to support his father and will make campaign appearances when his schedule permits.”
However he is deployed, Bush is seen as a valuable asset, both due to his youth — he’s 39 years old — and Hispanic background. He speaks fluent Spanish like his dad, and was raised by a Mexican-American mother. That combination could make him a natural fit for Nevada, whose Hispanic population is a far larger share of its overall population than any of the other three early-voting states.
“He’s not an outsider coming in. He’s an insider playing within,” said Daniel Garza, a longtime friend of George P. Bush. “That’s a big distinction.”
“I think the left is really starting to see things are not as set politically as they thought they were,” added Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative group focused on Latino voter outreach. “The fact that P. represents all that, and could be the tip of the spear for the Jeb Bush campaign on economic freedom versus economic populism, should make the liberals quake in their boots when it comes to the Latino community.”
In Nevada, George P. Bush did not draw the most youthful or diverse audiences, but he emphasized the need for more GOP outreach to minority communities. In Reno, he reminded Nevadans of his father’s strong performance within Florida’s Cuban community both times he ran for governor, which he said proved that conservatives do not need to change their positions to win over Hispanic voters. “Ninety percent of life is sometimes just showing up,” he said, quoting his dad.
In his remarks in both Nevada cities, his dad’s record as governor, from 1999 to 2007, was a central part of his pitch, and George P. Bush said it makes his father unique in the 2016 field when paired with his private-sector experience. Among George P. Bush’s favorite data points to highlight was the $19 billion in tax cuts his father presided over, a number he put in the context of the tax-relief package recently signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.
“We just had a huge food fight in Texas by saving just a few billion dollars,” George P. Bush said in Reno. “Now imagine doing that every year over the course of two terms.”
Yet for all the talk of his dad’s resume, George P. Bush seemed to get the warmest reception when he discussed the life lessons his father has taught him. Suggesting life was not handed to him on a silver platter, the younger Bush spoke of how his dad made him work as a janitor for a real estate management firm at a young age, learning the “hard lessons through mopping up floors and learning real estate from the ground up.”
On the political side, George P. Bush threw an ample number of barbs at Clinton, but he was also unafraid to draw some contrasts between his dad and the rest of the GOP field. Asked in Reno about his father’s fluency in Spanish, George P. Bush noted that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — another Florida Republican with his sights set on the White House — offered a “few words of Spanish in his announcement speech, but dad devoted a significant portion.” And later in Las Vegas, George P. Bush crowned his dad a “job creator king” while he was governor of the Sunshine State, calling the title “undisputed” in the 2016 field. (Supporters of former Gov. Rick Perry beg to differ.)
Throughout the day Wednesday, George P. Bush got a taste of the occasional unpredictability of the campaign trail. Inside a swanky Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, a festive mood quickly turned sour when a woman confronted him about his dad’s apparent stance on the trade deal currently under debate in Washington, pointedly asking him, “Is your dad going to continue to not know what’s going on in Congress, or is he going to tell us the truth and not be like Hillary and Barack?” The younger Bush replied that he would be surprised if his father insulted her then moved on, but tensions rose again a few minutes later when the host of the event scolded the woman for suggesting Jeb Bush was “not a good man.”
George P. Bush also fielded direct questions from audience members and reporters on what are viewed as his father’s two biggest vulnerabilities among GOP primary voters: his support for Common Core education standards and a path to legal status for people in the country illegally. On Common Core, he reiterated his father’s position that states “should have their own leverage in terms of designing their curriculum for the future.” On immigration, George P. Bush stressed that his dad wants to secure the border, then make sure there is an “earned path to some sort of residency.”
“Not citizenship and not amnesty,” he quickly added. “He wants to make that clear.”
Buell, the former chairman of the Washoe County GOP, said dispatching family members like George P. Bush can only help Jeb Bush, especially if they are highlighting his Florida record on the stump. He said most people he talks to are not remembering how conservative Bush’s tenure was in the Sunshine State — while also dismissing him out of hand due to his last name.
“The more he gets out and tells his story — and you get more people out there telling that story — I think they’ll get past the Bush name, and they’ll get past ‘He’s the establishment candidate,'” Buell said. “I think they’ll see he’s a conservative.”
George P. Bush suggested his dad would not be shying away from his last name on the campaign trail. As he stumped Wednesday, his father and young brother Jeb Jr. were on the campaign trail in early-voting Iowa, the kind of arrangement George P. Bush said voters could expect to see more of.
“Make no mistake,” he told an audience in Reno, “you’re going to see a lot of Bushes.”