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As Frontrunner Status Slips, Jeb Bush Prepares To Launch Campaign


Jeb Bush has gone from the clear frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination to just another strong contender in a pack of rising stars. He's expected to officially announce he's getting into the race on Monday. NPR's Don Gonyea looks at the soon-to-be-candidate's sometimes bumpy path and what he's facing.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Jeb Bush has been doing something that sure looks a lot like campaigning since posting on Facebook just before Christmas that he was actively exploring a White House bid. His basic message - America must restore its leadership in the world and that his time as governor includes credentials as a solid fiscal conservative. This is from a GOP dinner in Iowa last month.


JEB BUSH: They called me Vito Corleone because I vetoed over 2,500 separate line-items in the budget to bring budget discipline to Tallahassee.

GONYEA: Another staple of Jeb Bush speeches is the recognition that he runs with a history - a family history, that of his father, President George H. W. Bush, and his brother, President George W. Bush. He spoke about that in Chicago in February.


BUSH: And I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make, but I'm my own man. And my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.

GONYEA: Still, Jeb Bush hasn't been able to avoid George W. Bush's most controversial decision as president, the war in Iraq. When he was asked in May if he would've invaded Iraq knowing what we know now, first he said yes. Then a day later, he said he didn't know. Finally, later in the week, this...


BUSH: I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.

GONYEA: That was a rough week. Then this month, a campaign shakeup, even before he gets in. Recall, this is someone many saw as the frontrunner at the start of the year. Dante Scala is a political analyst at the University of New Hampshire.

DANTE SCALA: I would put him in the top tier of candidates in New Hampshire, but to call him the frontrunner - he's an awfully fragile frontrunner.

GONYEA: But it's still early, and once officially in, Bush will likely make his case more aggressively, backed up by television ads, social media and more, all fueled by an ability to raise money unmatched by the rest of the GOP field. Even so, he faces potentially formidable challengers, including from his home state. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is 44 years old and once viewed the 62-year-old Bush as a political mentor. Now a showdown looms. Rubio's own presidential campaign kickoff included a direct call for fresh faces.


MARCO RUBIO: Well, now the time has come for our generation to lead the way towards a new American century.


GONYEA: Bush has to fight the perception that he's the candidate of the past. But a key selling-point for him is that he was the governor of a big battleground state. But even there, he's got competition. Wisconsin's Scott Walker has won high marks in early campaigning, and there's the potential candidacy of Ohio's John Kasich who was in New Hampshire last week.


JOHN KASICH: Frankly, I thought that Jeb was going to just suck all the air out of the room, and it just hasn't happened - no hit on Jeb. No hit on you, Jeb.

GONYEA: Jeb Bush is often challenged by conservative voters opposed to his call for a path to legal status for immigrants in the U.S. illegally and for his support for Common Core education standards. He stands by those positions. Bush has said that, if he runs, his focus will be on winning the general election more than the primaries. He explained his reasoning on CBS's "Face The Nation."


BUSH: I think people are so disaffected and believe - and so cynical about politicians and politics. They don't want to hear someone say, well, I'm for this now and then immediately shift back to another position for the general election. Those days, if they ever existed, are over.

GONYEA: It's a notion Jeb Bush will put to the test in the 2016 presidential race, with his expected campaign kickoff on Monday. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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