Jeb Bush Immigration Stumble Shows Pol's Rust

Immigration reform proposals show continued GOP divide.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush talks about education reform during a forum on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee leaders are considering following Florida in establishing a program of school vouchers.
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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush may have landed in a bit of hot water recently for seeming to flip-flop his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but many conservatives chalk it up to rust rather than changing convictions.

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Bush, widely admired on both sides of the aisle for his respectful demeanor and willingness to problem solve rather than adhere to strict party lines, has been in the spotlight promoting his book on immigration reform and is widely thought to be exploring the possibility of a 2016 presidential run. The brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush admitted on CNN Tuesday he has supported different things at different times.

"I have supported both—both a path to legalization or a path to citizenship—with the underlining principle being that there should be no incentive for people to come illegally at the expense of coming legally," he said to CNN's Jake Tapper. "Today the only path to come to this country other than family reunification, is to come illegally. We need to create another category of legal immigration where there is actually a line. So if you could create that through a path to citizenship I would support that."

There are few issues as critical to the Republican Party right now as immigration reform, following a blistering loss to President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, thanks in part to a lopsided gap in Hispanic voters.

Luke Frans, executive director of Resurgent Republic, a Republican polling firm, says the mere fact Bush is willing to promote solutions indicates conservatives are headed in the right direction.

[OPINION: Will Jeb Bush's Flip-Flop on Immigration Hurt Him?]

"It's just like he did when he was governor—he's showing leadership in trying to solve a very complex issue and I think there's no question that Republicans would be in a better position today if there were more conservatives taking a proactive stance on the issue of immigration," he says. "Anytime the conversation is based on policy solutions rather than harsh rhetoric that's a good thing."

Republican strategists say Bush might have a learning curve when it comes to politicking in the current media environment.

"The last time Bush campaigned for office was 2002; since then campaigning has changed dramatically and his oscillating and stumbles on legal status versus a pathway to citizenship are proof positive that he has a lot of rust to shake off," says Ford O'Connell, a Republican consultant who worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign.

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"The takeaway for Bush this week is the recognition that everything you say is going to be scrutinized and held against you, and that honestly is the hardest thing for any candidate who is looking to move from the sideline into the fray of a presidential primary," he says.

Ron Bonjean, a Washington, D.C.-based GOP strategist, says Bush's contortions are an example of how hard it is for potential Republican contenders to reconcile their past positions on immigration with the widespread recognition that the party needs to become more inclusive to enable national electoral success.

"What is clear is that it will be a huge challenge for Bush or anyone else providing solutions to thread the needle on solving our country's immigration problems," he says.

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