Jeb Bush as email wonk: Will it matter to the people?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush addresses the Detroit Economic Club about his "Reform Conservative Agenda" in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2015.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters

The battle lines for a possible Jeb Bush vs. Hillary Clinton presidential campaign are already being drawn. The former Florida governor—in a new e-book and multiple public appearances—is working hard to establish himself as a folksy man of the people with a very transparent record.

And Democrats are working overtime to paint him as the second coming of Mitt Romney, an out-of-touch multimillionaire from a tired political dynasty who cut taxes on his rich friends.

First things first. Bush has a long road to actually getting the GOP nomination. His numbers among conservative activists are bad, especially on immigration and education, two of his core issues. He trails in early polling in the Iowa caucuses. His candidacy could still crash and burn.

But with Romney out of the race, Bush is close to the top with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in New Hampshire polling. And the Bush strategy involves a top finish in New Hampshire followed by a strong showing in South Carolina and dominant performances in the multistate primary days that follow driven by what his supporters hope will be a sizable financial advantage.

Democrats are conducting opposition research on all the leading GOP candidates and criticizing their every move with a special focus on Bush, Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

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But some of the most aggressive work is being done against Bush, viewed by many Democrats as both a likely nominee and a potentially serious threat to Clinton. The threat will be magnified if Bush can lock down his home state of Florida while selecting a running mate (Ohio Sen. Rob Portman comes to mind) who could help carry the Buckeye State.

Bush's latest attempt at crafting his national image came Tuesday with the release of the first chapter of an e-book on his tenure as governor coupled with a trove of emails from his time in office.

The book so far is hardly a literary masterwork, consisting of little more than a brief introduction followed by a pile of emails showing how Bush liked to communicate with constituents and staff.

One thing that comes across is that Bush really likes email. Loves it, in fact. Just a few excerpts: "I spent 30 hours a week answering emails, either from my laptop or Blackberry ... [A]fter a long day of meetings or travel, answering emails is sometimes what actually energized me … Spending time on email also could be quite humbling. …

"The evening of January 9th I decided to send out a bunch of emails … The last day of my first month was a Sunday; I obviously spent it catching up on email—answering emails from the public, bugging the staff, and teasing the lieutenant governor."

This book will not be short-listed for any awards.

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But it's all part of a clearly designed strategy to paint Bush as an accessible policy wonk who likes to speak directly to the people. He's attempted this with brief straight-to-camera clips on Facebook and Twitter and will likely do a lot more of it.

Democrats don't plan to let him get away with it.

In a blast email on Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee offered a detailed rebuttal of the book chapter. "What's actually included in Jeb Bush's new e-book and on his new website reveals less about what another Bush presidency would look like than what it omits," the email said. "Bush is pushing such bold platitudes as our need to 'protect our shores' and be 'a force of good not bad.' But he's leaving out his real record of leadership as governor, which more closely resembles the backward policy goals of Mitt Romney than a bold reformer willing to move our country forward."

The Democrats added that income inequality got worse in Florida under Bush and that he "consistently cut taxes for the wealthiest Floridians and big business, including the wealth tax on financial instruments, like stocks, bonds and mutual funds, and estate taxes."

Expect a great deal more of this both from the DNC and outside groups such as American Bridge and others who have staff dedicated to pushing back on everything Bush says and does.

It is still too early for a great deal of this to settle in the minds of American voters who are nowhere near ready to turn their minds to the 2016 presidential race. But it still matters. The Obama campaign proved masterful in 2012 at establishing an image of Romney as a plutocratic creature of Wall Street. Democrats hope to recapture that success to boost Clinton into the White House should Bush emerge as the GOP nominee.

The difference in 2016 is that Bush and his strategists are moving very early to counter that image. And they have a candidate who is a much more adroit politician than Romney. And Bush's geeky wonkiness and love for late-night policy emails appears to actually be the real thing.

—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.