Bush launches with an eye on Rubio

Tiredness with political dynasties: Ben White
Tiredness with political dynasties: Ben White   

Jeb Bush could not have hoped for a much better official entrance into the 2016 presidential race. In an upbeat and diverse event outside Miami, the former Florida governor pitched himself as an optimistic candidate dedicated to driving 4 percent economic growth and creating 19 million new jobs.

How exactly he hopes to accomplish this is a much tougher question, and details will have to come fairly soon. But for now it was enough to reset from a middling pre-campaign period in which Bush piled up cash but failed to emerge from a crowded GOP pack that is approaching a dozen candidates.

Bush has yet to sell himself to conservatives skeptical of his positions on immigration and education and wary of his famous last name. But he laid clear markers on Monday that he won't back down from those positions—he ad-libbed a fresh promise to address immigration reform—and will rise or fall on an inclusive message that plays to hope rather than caters to fear.

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"In any language, my message will be an optimistic one because I am certain that we can make the decades just ahead the greatest time ever to be alive in this world," Bush said, after offering some very fluent Spanish. "That chance, that hope, requires the best that is in us, and I will give it my all."

Jeb Bush formally announces his presidential bid in Miami, June 15, 2015.
Joe Skipper | Reuters
Jeb Bush formally announces his presidential bid in Miami, June 15, 2015.

Beneath the broad rhetoric and direct attacks on President Barack Obama and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Bush also more subtly trained his sights on one his chief rivals for the GOP nomination, Florida Senator and Bush friend Marco Rubio.

Bush made several references to nominating a candidate with executive experience who does not come from Washington. And he raised what many senior GOP officials say is a big drawback for Rubio: Comparisons to another young senator who ran for president and won in 2008.

"As our whole nation has learned since 2008, executive experience is another term for preparation, and there is no substitute for that," Bush said. "We are not going to clean up the mess in Washington by electing the people who either helped create it or have proven incapable of fixing it."

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In addition to taking aim at Rubio, this message also underscored that the Bush campaign does not view Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as a similar threat. Because Walker also boasts the kind of outside-Washington executive experience that Bush is offering. In making the case for himself, Bush also implicitly made the case for Walker.

The Bush team calculus that Rubio is the bigger threat is probably correct. Walker is very popular among conservatives for taking on public sector unions in Wisconsin and many in the elite say it is a major mistake to underestimate him. That may be the case. But while Walker went to Europe and made multiple mistakes, Bush traveled abroad before his announcement and generated almost no negative headlines.

Bush supporters say that if it comes down to a race between a pair of governors Bush will win out over Walker because of his more polished presence and command of a broader range of issues. They also believe that a GOP electorate hungry to keep Clinton out of the White House will ultimately decide that Bush, rather than Walker, will give them the best shot next November.

So right now, the campaign is clearly going after Rubio with lines like the one on Monday dismissing the "pampered elites" of Washington.

It might seem like the height of chutzpah for the son of one president and the brother of another to run as a maverick-style Washington outsider. But Bush is hoping to do just that in 2016. He is also hoping his consistency on issues coupled with a relentlessly sunny approach to America's economic prospects will win over skeptical GOP voters.

He may prove to be wrong about this. But at least at the outset, Bush seems committed to running the kind of campaign he wants run rather than the one some Republicans say he has to run in order to win. And if successful, Bush will wind up in a stronger position to win a general election than Mitt Romney did in 2012 after veering right to win a brutal primary campaign.

Democratic operatives watched the Bush announcement with a tinge of fear over how strong he might be against Clinton next year. They are right to worry.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.