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How Jeb Bush needs to shake off the rust

Among Jeb Bush's many advantages as he prepares for a 2016 presidential bid is his underlying reputation for earnestness and sincerity. After years of fierce battles over school reform, a Florida teacher's union official told The New Yorker recently the ex- governor "does genuinely care about trying to make kids' lives better."

That reputation is gold for a Republican candidate. And Bush needs it now as he tries to shake off years of rust and retool his political machine to race for the White House.

Jeb Bush
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On Tuesday afternoon, his aides scrambled to respond to an awkward consequence of a massive online release of gubernatorial emails meant to demonstrate Bush's commitment to transparency. As it happened, some of the material published online contained sensitive personal information of people who had written to then-Gov. Bush, such as their Social Security numbers. (In one released email from early in his term, Bush expressed concern about "possible invasion of privacy" from dissemination of state driver's license records.)

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On Tuesday evening, Bush's aides dealt with a larger and more perilous embarrassment: Revelations that their freshly hired "chief technology officer" had made highly derogatory comments about women and African-Americans. Those comments represented a direct hit on Bush's attempt to project an open, generous, positive spirit within a Republican Party hobbled by its injured "brand" and dependence on white voters, especially men.

That made the story's conclusion inevitable. A Bush spokeswoman by 9 p.m. announced the acceptance of the technology aide's resignation for "regrettable and insensitive comments" that "do not reflect the views of Governor Bush or his organization."

Last week Bush, who hasn't faced the voters for 13 years since his 2002 gubernatorial re-election race, displayed his rustiness in a different way. He delivered a plodding address to the Detroit Economic Club in which he pledged his determination to lift the stagnant incomes of the American middle class but wasn't prepared to explain specifically how he intended to do so.

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All the while, of course, Bush is also brandishing his strengths. His name is universally known. Florida, where he won twice and governed for eight years, is one of the nation's largest and most politically important states.

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His record—notwithstanding recent barbs from the right over his immigration views and support for "Common Core" education standards—was solidly conservative. In a general election, those barbs from the right could turn into badges of credibility helping him compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Those assets explain Bush's appeal to business executives who yearn for a Republican White House again and have large amounts of money to donate to Republican campaigns. Bush's political action committee will reap a bounty from his trip to New York on Wednesday.

Bush's travails of recent days won't have any long-term impact on his prospects. But they show that his path is neither easy nor assured. His political mechanics have a lot of work to do—and so does he.