"I love him,” said Romney in South Carolina last March. “If his name weren't Bush, he'd be running for president, I'm convinced." He went on to call Bush “quite a guy.”
In an email conversation with Politico, Bush reiterated his position that he will not endorse a candidate in advance of Florida’s Jan. 29 primary. “I am neutral,” he wrote.
But that doesn’t stop Romney from complimenting Bush, who is widely revered by party regulars. Bush left office in December 2006 with a 65% approval rating.
“When it comes to Florida Republican politics, Jeb Bush is still the sun, the moon, and the stars,” says Dan Schnur, an unaffiliated Republican strategist and professor at Stanford University. “No slight against the current governor or any other political figure but Jeb is a class by himself in terms of potential influence.”
In past visits to the state, say aides, Romney praised Florida for “having great governors,” a reference both to Bush and his successor, Republican Charlie Crist, who has also declined to endorse any of the Republican presidential contenders.
Romney aides expect more explicit Jeb Bush references in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary.
Even Romney surrogates have been quick to praise Bush. Florida Republican Congressman Tom Feeney, a campaign backer traveling with Romney on Monday, described the former Massachusetts governor as someone who quickly grasps complex policy problems—just like a certain former Florida governor.
“My bias, is that Jeb Bush was one of those people,” Feeney told a room of aerospace executives at Cape Canaveral.
Recent polling shows Romney, McCain, and Giuliani in a tight three-way race in the state. Florida will distribute 57 delegates next Tuesday, the most of any state so far. Technically, the state has 114 delegates but the number was slashed in half as a penalty for moving up the state primary. The full amount could be awarded at the national convention this summer.
Romney’s relationship with Bush dates back several years. In 2006, the two campaigned together on behalf of Republican candidates in the state. Working as head of the Republican Governors Association, Romney delivered a $1 million check to Crist, who was running for governor that same year.
At the time he received the contribution, Crist already had a steady lead in both polling and fundraising.
Romney’s not just a fan of the former governor, he’s an admirer of Bush’s staff, too. The Romney campaign boasts at least nine ex-Jeb Bush staffers. Sally Bradshaw, a Bush confident and long-time player in Florida politics, now works at Romney’s senior policy advisor. Bradshaw served as chief of staff for Bush, senior campaign advisor to his 2002 reelection campaign, and managed his 1998 gubernatorial bid.
State Director Mandy Fletcher worked as executive director of Governor Bush’s advocacy group, Foundation for Florida’s Future, Florida political director of the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign and a Northeast Florida field director for Bush's 2002 re-election campaign.
Romney national finance co-chair Mark Guzzetta is a close personal and business associate of Bush, having worked on both of his gubernatorial bids and served as finance co-chairman of Bush’s second campaign. Bush, who was best man in Guzzetta’s wedding, appointed him to the Florida Transportation Commission in 1999.
Bush’s press secretary, general counsel, statehouse policy director, and some of his field staff all also signed up with Romney.
“Gov. Romne was smart, he came in here early on and met with everyone and hired us up,” said Fletcher.
John McCain also picked up some of Bush’s staffers, although not nearly in the same numbers.
Former Bush aides draw similarities between their former boss and Romney, stressing their shared private sector backgrounds, policy wonk tendencies, and their data-driven way of analyzing problems.
“I think not unlike Governor Bush, Mitt Romney is a conservative who represents change,” says Bradshaw. “That’s appealing to people who have been supportive of both the current and previous governors in Florida.”
Republican voters at Monday events also see the resemblance. Christine Bozarth, a Republican from Daytona Beach, became a devoted Romney supporter last year after she saw him speak with Bush.
“They are both such feet-on-the-ground, down-to-earth people,” said Bozarth. “Bush was going around and introducing him, kind of like a buddy.”