KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine » Maybe it was the sunset selfies on the lawn at Walker’s Point, the family compound, with the state flags of Texas and Maine fluttering in the salty breeze.
Maybe it was the standing ovation for the elder President George Bush, frail but beaming, when he arrived Friday morning at a discussion of how to elect another of his sons to the White House.
But over two days of lobster rolls, and strategy sessions, whatever reluctance Jeb Bush may have had about publicly embracing his dynastic inheritance seemed to vanish. And for the hundreds of donors to Bush’s campaign for president who gathered in this seaside town — seat of the Bush family for more than a century — the family name seemed to have few downsides.
"I think Jeb’s made clear that he’s not going to run away from his family," said Eric J. Tanenblatt, who led the Georgia campaign of George W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s older brother, in the 2000 presidential election.
Jeb Bush’s father, his mother, his wife and even his son have raised money for his campaign or for his super PAC, tapping into a family donor network that began as his mother’s Christmas card mailing list. And now an invitation to Walker’s Point, for decades the ultimate VIP room in Republican politics, is Jeb Bush’s to bestow.
On Monday, he invited the last Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, to Walker’s Point for lunch, hoping to soothe lingering hurt over what Romney’s supporters considered a desultory endorsement of their candidate in 2012. On Thursday, a visit to the compound was the prize for members of the vaunted Bush fundraising operation, who arrived to the news that they had amassed more money, and more quickly, than any presidential effort in history. Marking the day, they gathered with the Bush family for a group photo.
Such donor retreats have become a routine feature of presidential campaigns, all the more important as the price tag for a major-party candidacy breaches the $1 billion mark. They are designed to reflect some actual or projected essence of the candidate: Hillary Rodham Clinton gathered her top fundraisers in May at a Brooklyn warehouse, for example, while Romney invited top donors for annual hikes and foreign policy lectures at the Stein Eriksen Lodge Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, a favorite destination of his family.
George W. Bush, the former president and former Texas governor, styled himself as a political outsider, and pointedly eschewed the establishment trappings of Maine. Many of the donors in Kennebunkport recalled, with something less than fondness, their frequent meetings at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, huddled under a tent in 100-degree heat.
But few candidates, they said, could compete with the Bush family’s inner sanctum, a compound of a half-dozen homes on a rocky spit jutting into the Atlantic, one of them recently built for Jeb Bush and his family.
"This is to the Bushes what Hyannis Port is to the Kennedys," said Dirk Van Dongen, a lobbyist in Washington who was making his first trip to the Bush home.
In his early months as a candidate, Bush seemed unsure of how tightly to embrace the family mantle. He dodged questions about his older brother’s record as president and eschewed his last name on campaign literature. (His exclamatory bumper stickers read, simply, "Jeb!") Announcing his campaign last month, Bush declared that "not a one of us deserves the job by right of risumi, party, seniority, family, or family narrative."
This events in Kennebunkport, however, were rich with such narrative.
Arriving on Thursday, the guests were greeted by Barbara Bush, Bush’s mother, and ushered into the main house for drinks. (The veteran Bush donors had chosen their socks carefully, in tribute to the elder Bush, known for his taste in brightly colored ones.) Later, they were whisked by old-fashioned trolley to a nearby luxury resort, where Jeb Bush promised his guests that he would not let their hard work go for naught.
On Friday, the donors sat for a political briefing led by Bush’s senior campaign staff, who praised them for nearly beating the record fundraising pace set by Bush’s brother during his 2004 campaign. Bush spoke as well, according to attendees, telling the guests he relished the closeness of the race in New Hampshire, where polls show several other candidates with a chance at winning, because a victory there could come only if he earned it. Bush’s parents attended the briefing.
"You leave saying: Not only was the next president of the United States, but the most important American of my lifetime, George H.W. Bush, sitting at my table, making me feel comfortable," said Ron Kaufman, who served as political director for the elder Bush.
Another top fundraiser for Jeb Bush, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, had a succinct appraisal of the venue. "For fundraising," he said, "it is gold."
"It’s not hauling these guys into a two-week rental in Martha’s Vineyard," the fundraiser said, adding that Kennebunkport was "a little bit more special than what Hillary can offer."
The guests were a microcosm of the financial operation that Bush is hoping will overwhelm his rivals. There were prominent businessmen, including Woody Johnson, the New York Jets owner, and Robert E. Diamond Jr., the former chief executive of Barclays. There were ambassadors and other veterans of George W. Bush’s administrations, among them Robert M. Duncan, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee; Emil W. Henry Jr., a former senior Treasury official; and Dina Powell, a former assistant secretary of state.
Some fondly recalled past visits to Maine. One guest, trying to convey the Yankee simplicity of the Bush home, described arriving on a past Kennebunkport jaunt and being offered a bowl of Fritos.
But there was also new blood, marking their first visit: a contingent in their 30s and 40s whom one donor referred to as "P’s crowd," referring to one of Jeb Bush’s sons, George P. Bush. Some had parents who had raised money for previous Bush campaigns.
"Everybody respects this family," said Jay S. Zeidman, a Texas health care executive who is close with the younger Bush generation, and whose father was a top donor to George W. Bush. "Being here — it’s a new phase, a new chapter."