The great Jeb debate: Will he or won't he seek 2016 nomination?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
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It's become "The Great Jeb Debate."

Will the former Florida governor seek the GOP nomination for president in 2016? And if he does, could he win? Bush himself has said only that he will make a call this year but that if he goes, he will go hard.

BuzzFeed's Ben Smith on Monday posted a piece arguing Bush would be a lousy candidate. But Smith is totally wrong about that. Ben and I debated the matter Tuesday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

My argument is that yes, Bush would face a tricky primary given his support for common core education standards and comments that illegal immigration is not a felony and often done as an "act of love." He would get hit hard by the tea party wing and probably lose a primary or two in the process.

But in the end, after flirting with the Pat Buchanans, Mike Huckabees and Rick Santorums of the world, the GOP almost always nominates the safest candidate viewed as having the best shot to win in the general election.

And in 2016, that could easily be Jeb Bush, especially if the candidate turns out not to be Chris Christie.

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Bush of course would be able to raise gobs of money from Wall Street and already has plenty of admirers in the elite DC-NYC corridor. But the idea that he is just a fantasy candidate of the Acela set is nonsense. (That's a reference to the power brokers. who travel up and down the Eastern corridor on Amtrak's express train.)

Bush is a powerful campaigner from a key swing state with an economic message that could connect throughout a party that will be desperate to win the White House, especially if the GOP nominee winds up facing Hillary Clinton. Will Republicans really turn to Sen. Ted Cruz or Rand Paul? It's hard to imagine (though certainly not impossible).

However, as Chuck Todd noted on "Morning Joe" earlier Tuesday, 2016 could be different from 2008 and 2012. If a candidate like Cruz or Paul catches fire in the early states, they will probably have the resources and desire to keep up the fight through many more states. A "wait-it-out" strategy like the one Mitt Romney employed in 2012 might not work for Jeb Bush or any other establishment candidate.

And governors such as John Kasich of Ohio or Scott Walker of Wisconsin would pose even more formidable threats to Bush. But to suggest, as Smith does, that Jeb would be a "terrible" candidate is incorrect.

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And the idea that all the "heat" in the GOP is with the tea party absolutists ignores the fact that the establishment crushed tea party hopes for fresh fiscal showdowns this year. Plus, so-called insiders (David Jolly in the Florida special election, for instance) seem to be doing just fine these days. For the GOP, 2016 will be about picking a winner. That could easily be Jeb.

So will he run? No one seems to know. One operative who has long been close to the former Florida governor told me: "The truth of the matter is Jeb hasn't decided he wants to run. What appears to be a series of trial balloons and preliminary steps is largely still pundits and operatives speculating, based on a few unconventional views Jeb has long expressed. If he does run, the real athlete will emerge."

The operative added that "Jeb has a history of running fast and hard with a big set of ideas that he can actually explain and defend. People who are sizing him up now are only looking at a vague outline of the potential candidate."

There are certainly more people arguing against the idea that Bush could win a GOP primary than arguing for it. The basic case against him is this. Bush has been out of office for more than a decade. He says stuff that angers the base. He's not a master of the 24-hour, Twitter-driven news cycle. And he has said publicly 2012 might have been his best shot.

The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol typifies this argument. He said earlier Tuesday that Bush would have no chance of winning the GOP nomination. "He's a good man; he hasn't been involved in any of the fights of the [President Barack] Obama years," Kristol said. "Republicans are kind of worked up about Obamacare, about the federal policy failures, that like someone who is either engaged in those fights in Washington or a governor who's governed successfully in real time. i.e., now, so a Scott Walker or a Mike Pence, or a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio or a Paul Ryan."

Kristol could well be right about this. But as he admitted in the MSNBC green room, he's been picking against the Bush family for many years.

The likeliest outcome, in the end, is not that Bush loses a GOP primary but that he chooses not to run.

—By Ben White. 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.

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