Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Tuesday, April 23, 2024 80° Today's Paper


Jeb Bush campaign’s demand for fidelity ruffles some Republicans

The prestigious consulting firm, known for its close ties to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, was orchestrating an extensive effort to remake his image and prepare him for the 2016 presidential campaign.

But that was no deterrent for Jeb Bush. His team hired the firm anyway and quickly made clear it wanted undivided allegiance. The company, FP1 Strategies, soon severed ties with Perry, startling his staff.

Bush has vowed to run a "joyful" presidential campaign free from the seamier sides of party politics, projecting the air of a cerebral man almost effortlessly drawing together Republicans eager to help him seek the White House. But behind the scenes, he and his aides have pursued the nation’s top campaign donors, political operatives and policy experts with a relentlessness and, in the eyes of rivals, a ruthlessness that can seem discordant with his upbeat tone.

Their message, according to dozens of interviews, is blunt: They want the top talent now, they have no interest in sharing it, and they will remember those signed on early — and, implicitly, those who did not. The aim is not just to position Bush as a formidable front-runner for the Republican nomination but also to rapidly lock up the highest-caliber figures in the Republican Party and elbow out rivals by making it all but impossible for them to assemble a high-octane campaign team.

Robert B. Zoellick, a well-known foreign policy expert, told friends he intended to advise multiple candidates, like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, in the early stages of the race. Bush wanted something else, asking for his "sole support," Zoellick said. A surprised Zoellick granted it, ending his relationships with everyone else.

Caught off guard, advisers to Christie, who had identified Zoellick as their own adviser when talking to supporters, bristled last week when Bush delivered a speech containing Zoellick-inspired language similar to what Christie had employed in the past.

Bush does not take maybe for an answer. When major party contributors are on the fence, he pressures — and flatters — them with questions about what it would take to win them over.

"How can I earn it?" he asks. "Give me milestones," he suggests, according to people told of the conversations.

Those who hold out can sense a distinct chill. When a policy expert was unready to commit to Bush, there was a long, pregnant silence on the other end of the telephone from Bill Simon, a former Wal-Mart executive who is assembling Bush’s team.

In many cases, the donors, advisers and operatives he is targeting possess a web of deep connections to the Bush family, through the presidential campaigns and administrations of Bush’s father and brother, making it difficult to say no.

To a greater degree than his rivals, Bush can call upon their loyalty, if not their passion, in building his organization. But the approach risks giving Bush’s emerging campaign a reputation for entitlement, a potential problem for a candidate who already appears distant from his party’s grass roots.

"There is a bit of uniqueness here because Jeb Bush has a long history by virtue of his family," said Mike Leavitt, the former governor of Utah and a Cabinet member in the White House of President George W. Bush. "He has the ability to ask."

The tug of Bush fidelity, he said "has substantial impact."

Leavitt is a case in point: Bush’s team is in the process of trying to bring him aboard.

Intraparty squabbling over staff is a staple of politics, but the speed and lopsided success of the Bush effort is taken some Republicans aback.

Those around Bush, of course, attribute his growing political muscle to organic enthusiasm within the Republican Party, not to aggressive recruitment tactics. They say Bush, a former Florida governor, is being deluged with risumis and offers of help.

But grousing over the forcefulness of the Bush salesmanship has now reached the ears of party leaders. Inside the Republican foreign policy firmament, Bush’s plea for "monogamy" nearly a year before the first voting starts has ruffled experts who view themselves as tutors to the entire party and, unlike donors and operatives, are uncomfortable being forced to choose sides this early.

"Spouses should be monogamous, not experts or scholars," said Bill Kristol, the conservative writer, editor of The Weekly Standard and a leading figure in the Republican foreign policy world. "The more candidates who get briefed by good people, the better it is for the party and the country," he added.

The demand for exclusivity has created headaches for Bush’s rivals. When FP1, the consulting firm, ended its relationship with him, Perry, who left the governor’s office in January, lost a top political adviser, Terry Nelson, who had become a member of his inner circle. Nelson himself was unhappy with the decision, said two people who spoke to him. Nelson, in an email, disputed that, saying "it was a decision that all of us, including myself, completely supported."

Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Bush, said that he hopes "to work with talented strategic advisers in the political arena who don’t have competing interests."

The Bush campaign for dominance is especially energetic in Florida, a crucial swing state where Sen. Marco Rubio is seriously weighing his own White House run. Bush’s staff is seeking to round up dozens of operatives, donors and advisers to secure a victory in the primary there, and, they hope, a commanding position in the general election. (President Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012.)

For some locals who have long associations with the Bushes, the outreach can take on a soft touch. John McKager Stipanovich, a Republican lobbyist in Florida with close ties to the Bush network, was impressed to receive a personal email from Bush inviting him to a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser two weeks ago. He went.

"I don’t know anyone here who isn’t for him," Stipanovich said.

Of course, the Bush operation does not always get its way.

Last fall, when Ray Washburne, a Dallas real estate investor, was finishing up his term as the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, he began receiving calls from friends and allies of Bush’s. Like Washburne, many of them had served as "Rangers" or "Pioneers" — high-ranking bundlers — for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, and the calls had the nostalgic, chummy tone of a college reunion.

Washburne said no, and went with Christie instead. "They were trying to keep the band together," Washburne said. "I told them we were friends before, we’re friends now, and we’ll be friends after all this. But putting the band back together from previous elections — it’s not the same as before. It’s not the same guy at the top."

For those who sign on with Bush, adherence to certain rules is expected. His team has politely but firmly asked a number of donors and advisers not to speak with the press, to the chagrin of a few.

Those who flout the rules, in the eyes of Bush’s camp, can earn a swift rebuke. Bush’s aides turned to a Washington technology firm called IMGE for assistance introducing the website of their political action committee in January.

Asked by a reporter at the time about the work, one of the firm’s founders, Phil Musser, suggested that the company was not tied down to any single candidate. Such indiscretion — and lack of fidelity — displeased the Bush team.

Musser, in an interview, said that his firm always planned to stay neutral in the race and that he had the "highest respect" for Bush.

But that may not matter anymore. Bush’s camp is no longer working with IMGE.

Michael Barbaro and Maggie Haberman, New York Times

Comments are closed.