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Jeb Bush to deliver commencement address at Liberty University

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits on April 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will deliver the commencement address at Liberty University on May 9, school officials announced Wednesday.

"Liberty University is honored to welcome Governor Jeb Bush to campus for our 42nd Commencement exercises," the university's president, Jerry Falwell, said in a statement. "Throughout his years of public service, Governor Bush has been a champion for excellence in education and so many other issues of vital importance to our university community."

The announcement comes as Bush lays the groundwork for a 2016 presidential run. The former governor is well-liked by the GOP establishment, and his address at Liberty, which bills itself as the world's largest Christian college, could be an early opportunity to court the party's evangelical conservative base.

The university was founded in 1971 by Falwell's father, Jerry Falwell Sr., who was a leading figure on the religious right. Its campus in Virginia has drawn many ambitious Republicans to speak in recent years.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a favorite of the GOP's right wing, kicked off his own presidential candidacy with a speech at Liberty last month. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke at Liberty's commencement in 2012, after he'd essentially sewn up the GOP nomination. Jeb Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, addressed the class of 1990.

And Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, delivered the university's commencement address in 2006 as he was gearing up for a presidential bid. McCain's speech marked a stark strategic departure from his previous bid in 2000, when he'd denounced Falwell and another famous evangelist, Pat Robertson, as "agents of intolerance." It was a risky move, sacrificing favor with Christian conservatives to court moderates and independents. And it didn't work - McCain lost the primary that year to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.