Jeb girds for battle with base

Jeb Bush is steeling for a fight with the GOP’s conservative base, signaling he will not bend from his centrist positions on immigration and Common Core education standards in 2016 — even if it costs him support with grassroots conservatives.

In what could be read as a swipe at 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Bush told a Washington audience this week that “no one really knows” if a presidential candidate can survive the primaries without sacrificing his core principles because “it hasn’t been tried recently.”

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The former governor of Florida also told the CEO Council forum sponsored by The Wall Street Journal that candidates have to be prepared to “lose the primary to win the general.”

Supporters say the comments show that if he enters the 2016 race, Bush will run a very different kind of campaign than recent GOP standard-bearers.

“His comments ... certainly answer whether he’s his own man,” one member of Bush’s inner circle told The Hill. “He’ll do this on his own terms or not at all.”

The source said Bush believes he can win by sticking to more centrist positions that could be popular in a general election, where the GOP nominee could face a formidable candidate in Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton for 2020 ‘not a good question,’ says Rahm Emanuel Graham: Comey should be held accountable for acting on bad intel Hillary Clinton condemns 'racist abuse' in Portland attack MORE.

“The question is whether you can assemble a coalition of serious-minded centrist voters,” the Bush source said. “If he thinks it can be done, he’ll do it how he sees fit.”

The past two GOP nominees, Romney and Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump got harsher GOP reception than Bush on budget Armed Services chairman unveils .1B Asia-Pacific security bill Overnight Defense: Trump scolds NATO allies over spending | Flurry of leaks worries allies | Senators rip B Army 'debacle' | Lawmakers demand hearing on Saudi arms deal MORE (R-Ariz.), had to downplay their past support for healthcare and immigration reform, respectively, just to win the primary battle. By then, they’d moved so far to the right that it hurt them in the general election, say Bush supporters.

Bush’s support for Common Core and immigration reform could both be problems in the GOP primaries.

The former Florida governor has made his support for Common Core standards the centerpiece of his work since leaving office, but one Republican strategist joked that GOP voters would rather have cannibals look after their children than submit to Common Core standards for them.

Bush drew conservative ire earlier this year for saying people illegally crossing the border for the sake of their children “broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”

Strategists interviewed by The Hill raised doubts about whether Bush could really avoid modifying at least his public statements in the rough-and-tumble GOP primary.

“Nobody gets a free pass in the Republican primary,” said Ryan Williams, a former Romney spokesman.

One strategist said “chastising conservatives for being too conservative in a conservative primary process” wouldn’t get him anywhere.

“History is littered with people who think rules of the primary don’t apply to them,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist.

Bush’s remarks underscored for some the view that he can’t stomach the political games a candidate has to play in the run-up to the general election.

He’s “shown a great deal of reluctance to embrace the more traditional campaign model where you go out and preach to Republican primary voters about why you’re the best fit,” said one strategist.

Others wonder whether he’s more comfortable in the environs of a think tank than on the campaign trail, saying he doesn’t have the “fire in his belly” to involve himself in a ruthless national campaign.

“He’s running for president of the United States, not president of the American Enterprise Institute,” one Republican said. “This is not a job for just a policymaker, people don’t make their sole judgments about a candidates based on the policy question.”

Bush’s confidant disagrees, saying people forget all too quickly the work he put in to rise to governor in a purple state where he burnished a resume that’s nearly universally admired by Republicans.

“Anybody that followed his campaign in Florida would conclude that he’s very comfortable with retail politics and he’s comfortable in a lot of communities where some conservatives have been afraid to go, with young voters, Hispanic voters, and working-class voters,” the source said.

Many Republicans privately admit they may need to embrace some type of reform to win a growing Hispanic population in a presidential year.

“You get the sense that he’s exasperated with the party to some extent,” one Republican said of Bush. “He has strong feelings on immigration and education that he gets attacked from Republicans for. When he last ran there wasn’t a Tea Party contingent to get on your case. It’s a whole different world now. If he wants to he can do it — he’ll raise money and has the gravitas, but running is a humbling experience, not a coronation.”

Still, strategists say Bush’s presence looms so large over the rest of the field that he can likely get away with things that would bury lesser candidates. Bush has a tight enough grip on the corporate donor base right now, and that could buy him time if he suffers losses in the early stages of the primaries.

He’s also viewed as one of the few candidates with the authority to match Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate. Republicans cheer the fact that he’s one of the few to lay out his policy positions at such an early point, even as other candidates — Clinton included — have hedged away from taking controversial stances.

“He’s someone Republicans look at and see a winner,” Williams said. “He’s won two competitive races, proven to be a big thinker in the party, and he could beat Hillary, so he generates a lot of enthusiasm.”

Bush had previously said he’d make a decision by the end of the year, but bought himself a little wiggle room on Monday, saying he’d decide “in short order” at some point “not that far out into the future.”

“Anyone close to him that says they know what he’ll do doesn’t really know,” the source close to Bush said. “I think it will be the still of the night and he’ll feel he’s either ready to go or it’s not his moment.”