Since his earliest major economic speech in Detroit last February, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has been signaling his intention to run a general-election style campaign rather than catering to the orthodoxy of primary voters, who tend to be more conservative.
In his speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Bush outlined the economic woes of the middle class and argued that he and his party were offering better solutions than the “failed liberal policies” of the Democrats.
Related: Can Jeb Bush Unite the GOP’s Establishment and Religious Wings?
Aides said at the time that Bush in effect was looking past the primaries to the general election – a risky gamble, for sure – in order to avoid running so far to the right during the primaries that he wouldn’t be able to win the political center during the fall campaign.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released on Sunday strongly suggests that Bush’s strategy may already be paying big dividends.
The poll shows that both Bush and his one-time political protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), are commanding support of huge swaths of their party’s social conservatives, centrists and gun-rights backers. Three-quarters of Republicans who intend to vote in the primaries say they could see themselves supporting either Bush or Rubio – a far larger share of the primary vote than any other candidates can claim.
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According to the survey conducted June 14-18, a full 75 percent of Republicans say they could see themselves supporting Bush for president, compared with 22 percent who say they could not. That's up from his 70 percent- to 27 percent showing in April and 42 percent score in March.
Rubio, 44, who is campaigning as a much younger, fresher alternative to the 62-year-old Bush and many of the others in the field, has the best margin of any candidate – with 74 percent saying they could see themselves supporting him and just 15 percent saying they couldn’t.
However, when asked to choose the one candidate they would favor for their party’s nomination, 22 percent chose Bush, followed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 17 percent, Rubio with 14 percent and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, with 11 percent.
Only former Republican Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee comes close to Bush and Rubio in overall party acceptance in the new poll, with 65 percent of likely Republican primary voters saying they could see themselves backing him for the nomination.
Related: Rubio, His Eye on 2016, Vows a ‘New American Century’
Bringing up the rear is Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman and TV showman, who was spurned by two out of three primary voters, and Carly Fiorina, a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co., who has begun to generate some interest within the party but still is viewed as a credible candidate by only 31 percent of GOP voters.
The new survey provided an important boost to Bush, the son and brother of two former Republican presidents, who had gotten off to a rocky start this year in his quest for the right to challenge Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in the 2016 general election campaign.
While Bush has had little trouble raising campaign funds in the early going, his big problem has been in articulating his vision for the party and separating himself from some of the more controversial foreign policy decisions of his brother, former President George W. Bush, especially with regard to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bush repeatedly struggled with a question he should have resolved in his mind long ago – whether he would have favored an invasion of Iraq, had he known that Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction as his brother’s administration falsely assumed. Jeb Bush finally said that, as president, he wouldn’t have ordered the invasion.
Related: Why Marco Rubio Might Just Beat Hillary Clinton
Bush, like his brother, has parted company with many of his conservative rivals for the nomination by standing firm in favor of a path to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, a position that likely will help him appeal to Hispanic voters in the 2016 campaign. And he continues his lonely support of Common Core as an effective method of measuring student learning, despite widespread opposition from conservatives.
During his formal announcement last Monday in a well-received speech, Bush declared, “We will take command of our future once again in this country. We will lift our sights again, make opportunity common again, get events in the world moving our way again.”
Bush focused on his two terms as Florida governor, which he portrayed as a time of success in turning around the state's economy and promoting conservative policies and values. "I know we can fix this. Because I’ve done it,” he said.
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