Last Thursday, politicians reported their second-quarter fundraising totals. Along with providing a glimpse of who looks strongest and weakest heading into the midterm elections, the occasion functioned as a test of strength in the race to decide who will challenge President Obama in 2012. Republican hopefuls raised money for their political action committees to donate to state and local candidates who might support their national ambitions. Mitt Romney blew away the field by raising $3.5 million, a sum, the Boston Globe noted, ''that dwarfs that of other possible 2012 Republican presidential candidates and establishes the former Massachusetts governor as a potent political force.''
Romney may have bested Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and the rest of the field. But another potent political force -- one who raised no money and has no PAC -- could still win the nomination were he inclined to pursue it: Jeb Bush is the candidate hiding in plain sight. The brother and son of presidents stepped back from elected politics after his second term as Florida governor ended three year ago. At 57, he's in his prime.
The knock on Jeb Bush begins and ends with his name. ''If he weren't a Bush, he'd be an obvious top choice,'' said conservative activist Grover Norquist. Widely presumed by the political cognoscenti to one day follow his father and win the White House, Jeb instead watched as his brother did so first, and then saw his own prospects laid to rest when George W. Bush became one of the least popular presidents in American history.
Or at least that's the conventional wisdom.
But there are a number of reasons to suspect that it wouldn't hold. For one thing, no obvious frontrunner has emerged nor seems likely to. ''There are a dozen people who would be fine candidates,'' Norquist said. ''There's not one who stands head and shoulders above the others.''
Another way of putting it is that each of the leading candidates is somehow flawed. Romney has money, but the GOP base will always distrust someone who vowed that abortion should be ''safe and legal'' and signed a health care law that became a model for President Obama's. Palin commands legions of supporters, yet many in her party regard her as dangerously unqualified. Mike Huckabee scares economic conservatives. Haley Barbour appeals mainly to the Deep South. The list goes on.
Bush, on the other hand, has a solid conservative record that wasn't compiled in Washington and broad appeal in a critical state; for a party conspicuously lacking a positive agenda, he's also known as an ideas guy. Bush hasn't followed the Tea Partiers to the political fringes -- he opposed Arizona's racial profiling law, for instance -- but neither has he ignored them. On Monday, he'll appear at a Kentucky fundraiser for Tea Party favorite and GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul.
But what about his big obstacle -- the name? It's often simply asserted that Bush could never overcome the burden. But there's clear evidence that voters distinguish between George W. Bush and his family members. In a 2008 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll [pdf], 35 percent of voters held a favorable opinion of George W., versus 65 percent who viewed him unfavorably. Those numbers reversed for his father: 57 percent viewed him favorably and just 34 percent unfavorably.
Would Republicans dare coalesce behind Bush? Surely they would. The hallmark of today's politics is a truculent refusal to concede error. What could possibly show up those arrogant liberals like nominating another Bush? Nor is it apparent that doing so would be politically perilous. As Obama's approval ratings continue to fall, it seems ever more likely that the 2012 election will be hard-fought and close, regardless of who is the Republican nominee. And Jeb Bush's appeal to the center is at least as strong as that of his colleagues.
The biggest obstacle to a Jeb Bush candidacy is Bush himself. Though he is traveling more often and raising money for Republicans, he has kept a low profile. Friends say he dislikes Obama's constant criticism of his brother. ''It's childish,'' he told the New York Times last month. Of course, the surest way to defend the family name would be to defeat the president who got elected by impugning it.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.