Can George P. make Jeb the 3rd Bush to win the White House?

Published 2:35 pm Saturday, August 8, 2015

LEXINGTON, S.C. — George P. Bush is talking up his dad — White House hopeful Jeb Bush — but knows some gentle ribbing awaits about his grandfather and uncle, two former Republican presidents also named George.

“We are lucky to have George Bush here. That’s George P. Bush,” says state Sen. Katrina Shealy, introducing the Texas land commissioner to the crowd at the Lizard’s Thicket restaurant.

The out-of-town guest grins, but keeps silent. “Yeah,” he later tells a reporter, “I’ve heard just about every George Bush joke that there possibly is.”

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The next-generation bearer of the powerful political name has been helping relatives run since age 3, when he clutched a balloon and sported a campaign T-shirt as grandfather George H.W. Bush launched his first presidential bid from a Houston park in 1979.

But never has George P.’s role as a political surrogate been as important as it is in the 2016 campaign. The 39-year-old is traveling the country — and flexing his muscle as a rising political star in Texas — and trying to help his father become the third Bush to sit in the White House.

“It’s definitely more emotional,” George P. Bush said of campaigning for his dad, rather than his grandfather or uncle, former President George W. Bush. “It’s just a little closer to home.”

George P. Bush suggested that doing so may be even more draining than running for the little-known but powerful job of Texas land commissioner, which he won in a landslide last fall.

“When you’re a candidate, you know the criticism is going to come,” he said in an interview. “But when it’s a relative, and it’s a man who you admire who’s your father, it changes things.”

Father and son have not campaigned together yet, though they talk frequently by telephone. Bush spoke at his father’s campaign kickoff in June, but Jeb was in Florida while his son made a recent, one-day swing through South Carolina, home to the South’s first presidential primary.

The younger Bush was in Columbia, the capital, to file paperwork putting his father’s name on the state ballot, then traveled to Lexington for the event with Shealy.

“George P. Bush knows Jeb Bush better than anyone in the country. That’s a strong surrogate,” said Matt Moore, the state party chairman.

The younger Bush says he is focused on his “day job” in Texas, which he took over in January, when Republican Greg Abbott took office as governor. Bush he manages 13 million acres of state public land and mineral rights for activities such as oil and natural gas drilling.

Campaigning comes naturally to him.

He was 12 when he led the 1988 Republican National Convention in the Pledge of Allegiance. His mother, Columba, is from Mexico and George P., like his dad, speaks fluent Spanish. In 1992, he concluded a brief floor address at the party convention by screaming “Viva Bush!”

He sprinkled Spanish into his speeches during the 2000 and 2004 Republican national conventions, and campaigned for his uncle, reaching out to Hispanic voters.

George P. Bush also campaigned for his dad in Florida, where Jeb Bush served two terms as governor.

“I almost think it’s more difficult now given the position he’s in, since I think he’s more conservative than his dad,” said Eric Opiela a former executive director of the Texas Republican Party and a University of Texas law school classmate who remembers Bush being gone a lot during the 2000 presidential campaign.

“He has a very difficult line to toe now,” Opiela said, “given that he’s a statewide elected official in a state as conservative as Texas.”

The younger Bush describes himself as a “movement conservative” and was an early endorser of long shot Senate candidate Ted Cruz, now a senator and one of his father’s primary race rivals.

But George P. also has struck a more moderate tone on immigration and environmental issues, and says his dad can unite the often feuding factions of the Republican Party by using his conservative credentials to stand up to tea party activists.

Regardless of whether he helps his father win the presidency, Bush’s political prospects look bright to many observers, including Moore, the South Carolina GOP chairman.

“I was thinking, Gov. Abbott in Texas now, so maybe the 2022 campaign for you?” Moore joked with Bush.

Like the George Bush jokes, that’s something he’s heard before, too.