Possible 2016 race hangs in the air as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton share billing

Philip Rucker (c) 2014, The Washington Post

IRVING, Texas — They didn’t stand on stage together and they certainly didn’t debate each other. They met briefly backstage and, yes, exchanged compliments, but that was about it.

Yet Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s joint appearance at an education conference here Monday underscored their shared status in the early 2016 presidential sweepstakes — two dynastic candidates who are the preferred picks of elites in their respective political parties.

Neither Bush nor Clinton has declared a run for president, and neither is expected to announce a decision until the end of this year at the earliest. But if the Republican and Democratic establishments have their way, the 2016 general election could pit Bush — the brother and son of former presidents — against Clinton, the wife of a former president.

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“Jeb and Hillary — that easily could be what the race comes down to,” said Fred Davis, a senior adviser on past GOP presidential campaigns. “You have two dynasties, and that actually helps Jeb’s chances. Everybody always says there’s no way people would elect another Bush. Well, same with Clinton.”

Bush and Clinton are substantive leaders with long records of public service — he as a two-term governor of Florida, she as a senator from New York and a secretary of state. They both have centrist views on many policy issues, and have shown the potential to appeal broadly to the nation’s diversifying electorate.

As they weigh possible campaigns, however, Clinton is in the stronger position: She is the Democrats’ overwhelming favorite and major party donors are funding an array of super PACs built to prod her to run.

In January, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Clinton trounced her potential primary rivals, with 73 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents supporting her. Vice President Joe Biden ran second, with 12 percent.

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On the Republican side, meanwhile, the race is wide open, polls show. Bush would compete for attention and support with at least half a dozen other prospective candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Rep. Paul Ryan, Wis., and Sens. Rand Paul, Ky., and Marco Rubio, Fla.

People close to Bush said he has not formally begun to consider a presidential campaign but plans to decide no later than early 2015. He chose not to run in 2012.

“People who thought he was not looking at this race six months ago were underestimating his interest, and people who think he’s made a decision and is moving forward to run right now are exaggerating where his thinking is,” said Sally Bradshaw, a top Bush adviser.

Bush’s public statements about 2016 have been largely consistent. He said last month in Florida that his would not be “some kind of struggling, ‘woe-is-me’ decision process.” As he put it in November in Wisconsin, “The thinking part is not really related to the politics of all this but whether I can do it with joy in my heart and whether it’s going to be right for my family. Those are the two considerations.”

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Republican donors and other party elites — fearing that Christie has been permanently weakened by the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal and alarmed by Paul’s libertarian bent — are stepping up efforts to encourage Bush to run. They said they believe he would occupy a unique space in the GOP primaries, having the gravitas to go toe-to-toe with Clinton and a broad appeal to Hispanic voters.

These Republicans said Bush’s active public schedule on the 2014 campaign trail is a signal that he is open to running. He was in Tennessee last week with Gov. Bill Haslam, and raising money for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at the Nashville home of country singer Kix Brooks. He headlined Republican National Committee fundraisers last month in Los Angeles, as well as an event Sunday in Dallas to help House candidates.

Later this week, Bush will campaign in New Mexico with Gov. Susana Martinez and in Nevada with Gov. Brian Sandoval. He also will address the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas at a VIP dinner Thursday night held by Sheldon Adelson.

“I used to think there was no chance Jeb was going to run and I’ve changed my opinion,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush. “Jeb would be a fascinating candidate. He’s a former governor of Florida, he does so well with the Hispanic vote, his focus on education. He has a very modern appeal.”

At Monday’s conference on the globalization of higher education, Bush and Clinton both sounded an alarm about the rising costs of college in the United States.

This was at least their third encounter during the past year. In April, they appeared with their families at the dedication of George W. Bush’s presidential library in Dallas. And in September in Philadelphia, Jeb Bush, in his capacity as chairman of the National Constitution Center, awarded Clinton the Liberty Medal at a lavish ceremony.

Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are cordial with each other, aides said, but have not developed much of a personal bond. Their families, however, have grown close over the years. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — campaign rivals in 1992 — became friends through their charitable work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Former first lady Barbara Bush once quipped that Bill Clinton has become so close to the family that her sons call him their “brother by another mother.”

At the Philadelphia ceremony, Hillary Clinton told the audience that Barbara Bush refers to Bill Clinton as her “adopted black sheep son.” That same night, Jeb Bush made a playful reference to the potential campaign ahead, warning Hillary Clinton not to wear her medal in Des Moines.

“Hillary and I come from different political parties, and we disagree about a few things,” he said. “But we do agree on the wisdom of the American people — especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.”