Feature JEB BUSH
MIAMI, Florida, United States (Reuters) - He's the non-candidate they never stop talking about.
Ever since Jeb Bush left the Florida governor's mansion in 2007 with favorable ratings after two terms, speculation has swirled about his political future.
The chatter has only gotten louder this year amid the Republican Party's "veepstakes" - despite Bush's repeated insistence that he is not in the running.
Bush appeared to put the issue to rest in a recent series of interviews with various media outlets in which he criticized the direction of the Republican Party and said that both his father, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan would "have a hard time" getting along with the party today.
When he said he supported a modest tax increase along with spending cuts to help reduce the federal debt, Bush joked, "This will prove I'm not running for anything." Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, and the party leadership oppose any and all tax hikes.
Comments like these have only fueled speculation that Bush is positioning himself to run for president - in 2016. According to this scenario, his breaking with the party on issues such as taxes is meant to stake out a platform that will move it back to the moderate center and away from more divisive social issues, while also seeking more common ground on issues such as education and immigration.
The best argument for doing that, of course, would be if Romney, running on more conservative positions, fails to unseat President Barack Obama this year.
"Jeb Bush is following a pattern we see with ambitious presidential candidates," said Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College, New York. "Just like Romney did in 2004, he's raising his public profile and increasing his speech activity now for a potential run in four years."
If Romney wins, Bush would be a likely cabinet candidate, perhaps as education secretary, said Chandler. But any presidential ambitions would have to wait until 2020. By then he would be almost 68, just a year younger than Reagan in 1990, the oldest U.S. president to be sworn into office.
Not everyone is convinced Bush has such a game plan. Some of the people who know him best say he is not that calculating. They say he is speaking out because he is deeply loyal to the Republican Party and worried about the issues he holds dear.
"It's more about helping the cause than helping himself. He will always call it the way he sees it," said Jorge Arrizurietta, a top Republican fundraiser in Miami and a former adviser to Jeb Bush. "I can't tell you that he's got a master plan, but there is a broad consensus in the party that Jeb should stay involved and consider a run at the right moment."
Bush declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a busy schedule, including a speech on Thursday in Orlando to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials where he received a rapturous reception.
Speaking at the same event, Romney got a noticeably less enthusiastic welcome, though he softened his stance on immigration, appearing to borrow from Bush's advocacy for a more compassionate position toward the nation's 11 million undocumented aliens.
Bush's conservative record in government gives him more "flexibility" to speak freely, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "He's got a record that's appealed to the base. That overrides any apostasy on the campaign trail."
Bush secured his bona fides with social conservatives in 2003 with his controversial order to reinsert the feeding tube of Terri Schiavo, a brain-injured woman who had been in a coma for 15 years. The family was divided over whether to keep her alive, but right-to-life activists pushed the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bush made his biggest mark as governor in education policy, securing a number of reforms with a conservative slant. …