Bush: 'My hope is I'll be a candidate'
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Receiving a returning hero's welcome, Jeb Bush wowed a crowd of more than 400 businesspeople Tuesday as the former Florida governor capped off a day of speeches from declared and potential GOP presidential candidates at an invitation-only economic summit hosted by Gov. Rick Scott.
Bush received two standing ovations and the warmest welcome of the six candidates --- all current or former Republican governors --- who showed up in person to make their pitches in a precursor to the coming months in the Sunshine State, a coveted electoral prize.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., kicked off the event in a video appearance Tuesday morning. Rubio --- one of the few announced candidates --- canceled an appearance at the event so he could remain in Washington for a critical vote on a measure dealing with national security.
Bush, who has not officially entered the race, repeatedly said that he is "not a candidate" but delivered what by all accounts was a stump speech Tuesday afternoon before telling reporters that it he is "nearing the end of the journey" about making a decision regarding entering the race.
"There's a lot of support for a more-hopeful, optimistic message. So hopefully I'll make my decision relatively soon. My expectation, my hope is I'll be a candidate. I really do," Bush said.
Bush said he "won't be the last guy in" and is "pretty excited about the prospect" of running for president. He also joked about what is expected to be a crowded GOP field.
"It's a rambunctious deal. We've got 75 people running," Bush said. "There's going to be some elbows and knees under the boards. This isn't tiddlywinks we're playing."
Bush boasted of his achievements during his eight years as governor, ending in 2007, relating how he raised the graduation rate, lowered unemployment and raised the median income level, while shrinking state government.
He also used the "Florida story" as a lesson for the nation.
"We're the kind of state that's dynamic and aspirational and the kind of dreams that we have might be bigger than other places," Bush said. "The net result is by believing in limited government, by having a passion for reform and having a resiliency that is the envy of the rest of the country, Florida's done really well."
Bush called his tenure as the state's chief executive "a stark contrast" to the current situation in the nation's capital.
"I was called a lot of things when I was governor, but I was called 'Veto Corleone.' This is the one I love the most," Bush said. "We reduced the size of government by creating discipline."
And he was unapologetic about the "Bush" name, which is viewed by some as a liability in a country that has already seen two Bush presidencies.
"I'll use my brother, my sister, every relative, every person I can," Bush told FOX News personality Neil Cavuto during a taping at the Disney Yacht & Beach Club Convention Center, where Scott's summit was held.
Bush echoed themes expressed by the other GOP governors --- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry --- who spoke earlier in the day.
The governors almost universally bashed President Barack Obama, gave little if any attention to Democrat Hillary Clinton, and struck a federalist note by pledging to cede more power to states.
Bush compared his story of "leadership" and "accomplishment" with that of Obama.
"People can say we had a president that really didn't have a lot of experience. He promised us a lot of stuff. He didn't fulfill our promises and maybe we ought to go with something that's a little more proven. So part of it will be the Florida story," Bush said. "And part of it will be to offer ideas that really matter for people so that they know that any campaign is about the future. And part of it is about who has the leadership skills to make it so."
In his video message, Rubio hit on the generational divide that has become a cornerstone of his campaign narrative.
"Our outdated leaders continue to cling to outdated ideas," the 44-year-old said, calling for a "new generation of leaders."
Bush, a onetime mentor of Rubio, gave a sarcastic rejoinder when asked if Rubio was referring to the former governor.
"It's kind of hard to imagine that my good friend Marco would be critical of his good friend Jeb," Bush, 62, said.
The warm reception given to Bush "was an indication of how much people trust him," said Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association President Carol Dover.
"He's got a proven record. He's not one that just stands up at the podium to hear himself talk. What he says, he implements. Everything he ran on, he kept his promises and his values. He stayed true to his core beliefs," Dover said. "I just think it's a shame that anybody in our country would immediately judge him based on his name. I think he needs to be judged based on his substance and his policies and who he is. How he left our state after eight years, which is why he got a standing ovation. We want him back. He governs fair. He was a great, great governor for Florida, and he would make a fantastic president."
Scott personally selected the invitees to the event, co-hosted by his "Let's Get to Work" political committee and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Some of Tallahassee's most influential lobbyists and longtime Scott supporters, including Billy Rubin and Brian Ballard, were among the movers-and-shakers in attendance at what Scott called the "Economic Growth Summit."
The summit, a brainchild of Scott, was assembled without the participation of the Republican Party of Florida, which typically sponsors a presidential candidate forum closer to Florida's presidential primary election. Florida's primary will take place next March.
Scott, who introduced the speakers, predicted that one of the participants at his summit would be the next president and that Florida should be used as a model.
"Our strategy of less taxes, less regulation, streamlined permitting is working," Scott said. "So the next president has got to do what we've done if we're going to get this economy going. … In Florida we're in the business of growing opportunity. We're not in the business of growing government."
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