Inside Jeb Bush’s Stealth Campaign to Woo Christian Conservatives

Inside his spiritual journey and his stealth campaign to woo Christian conservatives.

This illustration can only be used with the Tim Alberta and Tiffany Stanely story that originally ran in the 3/28/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
Robert Carter
March 27, 2015, 12:10 a.m.

On a sunny Sat­urday morn­ing in early March, Bob Vander Plaats walked in­to the West Des Moines Mar­ri­ott with a chip on his shoulder. Iowa’s evan­gel­ic­al shot-caller had come to meet with Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, who was in town for the Iowa Ag Sum­mit, a cattle call that drew the ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls. Over the course of the week­end, Vander Plaats had sit-downs sched­uled with just about all of them. But not Jeb Bush.

A twice-failed gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate who helped boost Mike Hucka­bee to vic­tory in the 2008 caucuses, Vander Plaats has grown ac­cus­tomed to pres­id­en­tial as­pir­ants lin­ing up to kiss his ring, and his group, the Fam­ily Lead­er, has yet to choose a can­did­ate for 2016. But when Bush’s team planned the former Flor­ida gov­ernor’s first trip to Iowa in 15 years, no time was set aside for Vander Plaats—or for any of Iowa’s oth­er prom­in­ent Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives. The snub had left Vander Plaats stew­ing.

So who did he see when he walked in­to the Mar­ri­ott lobby on Sat­urday morn­ing? Bush him­self—ac­com­pan­ied by Dav­id Kochel, the long­time Iowa Re­pub­lic­an strategist who’s been tapped to run Bush’s na­tion­al cam­paign. Kochel leaned over to the can­did­ate, and after a nod and a whis­per, the two sprung up and made a beeline for Vander Plaats.

“I would not say it was awk­ward,” Vander Plaats re­calls, a trace of mis­chiev­ous­ness in his voice. “I would say it was ‘Iowa hos­pit­able.’ “Š” He and Bush chat­ted cas­u­ally for about 10 minutes, he re­calls, steer­ing clear of thorny sub­jects and en­ga­ging in some farm­ing banter. Bush, whom Vander Plaats says was “very, very gra­cious,” prom­ised to keep in touch. That struck Vander Plaats as a throwaway line, noth­ing more than a pleas­ant way of end­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. But over the fol­low­ing week, Bush’s team, at the can­did­ate’s be­hest, did fol­low up, mul­tiple times. Bush asked Vander Plaats to ar­range a private meet­ing with his evan­gel­ic­al al­lies in Iowa; Vander Plaats con­sen­ted, on the con­di­tion that Bush also speak pub­licly at a Fam­ily Lead­er func­tion. While Bush’s team has not yet com­mit­ted to that, Vander Plaats is con­fid­ent that Bush will be back in Iowa some­time this year for both pub­lic and private vet­ting ses­sions with the state’s lead­ing so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. (Bush de­clined to com­ment for this story.)

(RE­LATED: The Trouble With Be­ing Jeb)

The epis­ode spot­lighted, in mini­ature, the com­plic­ated re­la­tion­ship that Bush has with con­ser­vat­ive Chris­ti­ans. The same voters who fam­ously provided the “ground troops” for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 vic­tor­ies are, thus far, look­ing askance at his broth­er, see­ing him as a clas­sic, feck­less “mod­er­ate” Re­pub­lic­an in the mold of John Mc­Cain and Mitt Rom­ney. That could present a ma­jor road­b­lock to the nom­in­a­tion, since fully half of Re­pub­lic­an primary voters are evan­gel­ic­als, and the num­ber is even high­er in the key early states of Iowa and South Car­o­lina. Among white, born-again Iowa evan­gel­ic­als, 27 per­cent said in a re­cent Quin­nipi­ac poll that they def­in­itely wouldn’t vote for Bush—ty­ing him with Chris Christie for that group’s low­est seal of ap­prov­al. Their skep­ti­cism to­ward Bush is a big reas­on why he cur­rently polls in fifth place in the state.

And yet, Bush is hardly a stranger to the world of re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ism. In his two terms as Flor­ida gov­ernor, he was a fe­ro­cious—and some­times con­tro­ver­sial—cham­pi­on for life and tra­di­tion­al fam­il­ies, com­pil­ing a re­cord of so­cially con­ser­vat­ive gov­ernance that none of his Re­pub­lic­an foes can match. “As it relates to mak­ing de­cisions as a pub­lic lead­er, one’s faith should guide you,” Bush said in 2009. “That’s not to say that every de­cision I made would be com­pletely in keep­ing with the teach­ings of the Cath­ol­ic Church, but it was a guide­post that kept me out of trouble.”

On Bush’s first cam­paign swing through Iowa, he snubbed the state’s prom­in­ent Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives. (Daniel Ack­er/Bloomberg via Getty Im­ages)

Among con­ser­vat­ive Chris­ti­an lead­ers, Bush in­spires wildly dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions—from deeply dis­trust­ful to nearly wor­ship­ful. Tony Per­kins, who heads the in­flu­en­tial Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, says that some of Bush’s mod­er­ate stances (on im­mig­ra­tion and edu­ca­tion, for in­stance) show his in­clin­a­tion to “dig in and stick a fin­ger in the eye” of con­ser­vat­ives. Yet there is also a camp of more prag­mat­ic evan­gel­ic­al and Cath­ol­ic lead­ers who are any­thing but hos­tile to Bush. In fact, they’ve taken turns meet­ing with the former gov­ernor over the past year and are pos­it­ively smit­ten with him.

How to re­con­cile these ver­sions of Bush—the one who is viewed war­ily by so­cially con­ser­vat­ive voters even as he em­braces many of their causes, the one who turns off some evan­gel­ic­al lead­ers and im­presses oth­ers, the one who both snubbed and reached out to Vander Plaats? Part of the an­swer may be that Bush—who is seen by friends and fam­ily as a clas­sic in­tro­vert—simply doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve. And part of it may be shrewd polit­ics: The man who fam­ously said that a Re­pub­lic­an must be will­ing to “lose the primary to win the gen­er­al” in 2016 wants to court re­li­gious voters without tak­ing the kinds of hard-line stands that could hurt him in the gen­er­al elec­tion. He knows that woo­ing the evan­gel­ic­al base gen­er­ally in­volves talk­ing (and talk­ing some more) about po­lar­iz­ing is­sues—abor­tion, con­tra­cep­tion, and same-sex mar­riage, to name a few—in ways that risk ali­en­at­ing the broad­er elect­or­ate come Novem­ber. Bush wants to avoid that. But he also needs Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives’ votes to get to Novem­ber in the first place.

(RE­LATED: Jeb Bush’s Night­mare Scen­ario)

It has all landed Bush in a strange, prob­ably un­pre­ced­en­ted, spot: He’s a nat­ur­al can­did­ate of re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives who’s so far be­ing over­looked by that in­flu­en­tial vot­ing bloc. Bush wants Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives to pay at­ten­tion to what he’s done, not just to what he says. But in a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary, can ac­tions—much less ac­tions more than a dec­ade in the past—ac­tu­ally speak louder than words? Can quiet faith, and quiet sup­port from some re­li­gious lead­ers, carry the day against a field full of out­spoken Chris­ti­an war­ri­ors?

BE­FORE HE WON two terms as gov­ernor, be­fore his broth­er won two terms as pres­id­ent, be­fore he con­sidered his own 2016 White House bid, Jeb Bush lost his first polit­ic­al race. It was 1994, and Bush ran, in his words, as a “head-banging con­ser­vat­ive” in a bruis­ing cam­paign against Demo­crat­ic Gov. Law­ton Chiles. On the stump, when asked what he would do for Flor­ida’s black voters, Bush said, “Prob­ably noth­ing.” He ran ads ac­cus­ing his op­pon­ent of not ex­ecut­ing death-row in­mates fast enough. He put out reams of far-right policy pa­pers and re­cruited an ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive state le­gis­lat­or as his run­ning mate. But that fall, in a Re­pub­lic­an wave elec­tion that saw his older broth­er knock off a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor in Texas, Bush lost an ag­on­iz­ingly close con­test by less than 2 per­cent­age points.

He took it hard. “I al­ways say when you lose a race by 13 points, you can sleep soundly, be­cause there’s noth­ing you could have done to change it,” says Mac Stipan­ovich, a GOP op­er­at­ive who ad­vised Bush’s first cam­paign. “When you lose a race that close, you can al­most nev­er sleep again. Al­most any­thing you could have done would have changed it.”

Bush felt he was com­ing up short at home, too. Long hours and 18 months on the cam­paign trail had taken him away from his wife and three chil­dren, and his mar­riage of 20 years was strug­gling. One of his chil­dren was get­ting in­to trouble. Al­ways prone to in­tro­spec­tion, he began to search for where he’d gone wrong. In an ef­fort to re­group and re­con­nect with his fam­ily, he turned to the Cath­ol­ic faith of his wife. Cath­oli­cism had been part of Bush’s life since 1974, when he mar­ried Columba Gar­nica de Gallo in the Uni­versity Cath­ol­ic Cen­ter at the Uni­versity of Texas at Aus­tin. They wanted the fam­ily to share a re­li­gious tra­di­tion, and their chil­dren were brought up Cath­ol­ic, with Bush of­ten at­tend­ing Mass. But he’d nev­er form­ally con­ver­ted from his Epis­copal roots.

Two weeks after his de­feat, Bush went to Miami’s Church of the Epi­phany and began the Cath­ol­ic Rite of Chris­ti­an Ini­ti­ation of Adults—a months-long pro­cess that re­quired him to go to con­fes­sion, find a spon­sor, and at­tend weekly courses on church doc­trine and prac­tice. He later told a Flor­ida Cath­ol­ic news­pa­per that the pro­cess al­lowed him “to take some time to pause and re­flect”; this wasn’t the kind of dra­mat­ic, “I was blind, but now I see” con­ver­sion that his broth­er had ex­per­i­enced. On East­er week­end of 1995, Bush was form­ally re­ceived in­to the Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church. In the years since, he has said that he finds the tra­di­tion’s sac­ra­ments com­fort­ing and that his “faith was strengthened when I con­ver­ted to my wife’s faith.” Between his first two cam­paigns, Bush con­tin­ued his pre­vi­ous work in real es­tate, but he also helped start a charter school in a strug­gling Miami neigh­bor­hood. He cowrote a book, Pro­files in Char­ac­ter, which cribbed its title and premise from Pro­files in Cour­age, the Pulitzer Prize—win­ning work of Amer­ica’s only Cath­ol­ic pres­id­ent, John Kennedy. Bush ded­ic­ated the book to his fam­ily, and “to God, whose di­vine and guid­ing light is the ul­ti­mate means to vir­tue.”

“I think he grew spir­itu­ally in that dec­ade of the ‘90s,” says Al Carde­n­as, the former Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on chair­man who has known Bush for al­most four dec­ades. “It made him a bet­ter hus­band and dad. I saw that be­fore my very eyes.”

(RE­LATED: Jeb Bush’s Head­winds)

It also made him a dif­fer­ent politi­cian. When he tried again for gov­ernor in 1998, Bush was no longer the same com­bat­ive, even angry, can­did­ate he’d been four years earli­er. His stances had changed little, but his tone was softer, his out­look more—well—com­pas­sion­ate. Bush ex­plained to a St. Peters­burg Times re­port­er that his Cath­ol­ic com­mit­ment changed the ten­or of his cam­paign­ing. “It’s softened it in the sense that it is a po­s­i­tion of love, not of in­tol­er­ance,” he said. “It is a deep­er be­lief about the value and sanc­tity of life it­self.” This time, he cam­paigned vig­or­ously in black churches. He talked of his con­ver­sion and caring for the poor. “He cer­tainly was a dif­fer­ent can­did­ate, but he seemed to some de­gree to be a dif­fer­ent per­son as well,” says Au­brey Jew­ett, a polit­ic­al-sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Cent­ral Flor­ida. He won eas­ily, by 11 per­cent­age points. At Bush’s in­aug­ur­a­tion, the Rev. Billy Gra­ham prayed that the new gov­ernor would lead Flor­ida in “a mor­al and spir­itu­al awaken­ing.”

Gov. Bush seemed bent on do­ing just that, and in the pro­cess, he pi­on­eered new ways to in­fuse Chris­ti­an faith in­to state gov­ern­ment. “Jeb con­nec­ted his mor­al and re­li­gious be­liefs to his pub­lic policies more openly than a lot of people,” says Mat­thew Cor­rigan, a polit­ic­al-sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of North Flor­ida. Nowhere was this more evid­ent than in his pro-life work. (Bush would later tell the Chris­ti­an Broad­cast­ing Net­work that his faith in­formed him about “the dig­nity of life more than any­thing else.”) Dur­ing his first year in of­fice, he made good on a cam­paign prom­ise, sign­ing in­to law a con­tro­ver­sial bill that cre­ated “Choose Life” li­cense plates whose pro­ceeds be­nefited crisis-preg­nancy cen­ters that en­cour­aged wo­men to choose ad­op­tion over abor­tion. Bush went on to push for a “par­tial-birth” abor­tion ban, and for le­gis­la­tion re­quir­ing doc­tors to no­ti­fy the par­ents of girls un­der 18 at least two days be­fore an abor­tion pro­ced­ure. He signed both laws, but they were blocked by courts. Sub­sequently, however, Bush and con­ser­vat­ive law­makers got par­ent­al no­ti­fic­a­tion on the state bal­lot, and voters changed the Flor­ida con­sti­tu­tion to al­low it to go for­ward. The gov­ernor hap­pily signed par­ent­al no­ti­fic­a­tion in­to law in 2005.

Bush cam­paigns with his par­ents dur­ing his “head-banging” bid for Flor­ida gov­ernor in 1994; after his loss, he con­ver­ted to Cath­oli­cism. (Joe Burb­ank/Or­lando Sen­tinel/MCT)

Bush was not averse to de­vi­at­ing from Cath­ol­ic doc­trine at times. He sup­por­ted the death pen­alty, des­pite sus­tained lob­by­ing from Cath­ol­ic bish­ops. His pro-busi­ness policies were a far cry from the papacy’s blis­ter­ing cri­tiques of cap­it­al­ism, though they lined up neatly with those of most Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives in the United States. (More re­cently, Bush, who has been known to tweet praise for Pope Fran­cis, has pub­licly cri­ti­cized the U.S. deal with Cuba, which the pontiff helped broker.) Former col­leagues and staffers say the gov­ernor was private about his Cath­oli­cism on the job, but the signs were there—in the ros­ary he was known to carry, or in the Bible he kept in his second of­fice, where he did most of his work. State Rep. Den­nis Bax­ley, the dean of the Flor­ida Le­gis­lature’s so­cial con­ser­vat­ives, took com­fort in the fact that Bush’s Bible was usu­ally open at a dif­fer­ent chapter and verse each time he vis­ited. “It was used,” he says. “It wasn’t a dec­or­a­tion.”

In­deed, Flor­ida’s faith com­munity could find little fault with Bush as gov­ernor. His great am­bi­tion was to leave a last­ing mark on edu­ca­tion, and he de­lighted so­cial con­ser­vat­ives by cham­pi­on­ing school choice. He cre­ated the coun­try’s first statewide vouch­er sys­tem, des­pite leg­al chal­lenges and heavy cri­ti­cism from the ACLU and oth­er cham­pi­ons of church-state sep­ar­a­tion. (Part of the ori­gin­al plan was de­clared un­con­sti­tu­tion­al, and re­booted as a tax-cred­it pro­gram.) After his broth­er opened the White House Of­fice of Faith-Based and Com­munity Ini­ti­at­ives, Jeb cre­ated a sim­il­ar board at the state level. He also con­ver­ted three cor­rec­tion­al fa­cil­it­ies in­to faith-based pris­ons—the first of their kind in the na­tion—that used re­li­gious pro­grams to pro­mote re­hab­il­it­a­tion. And whenev­er he made a key ap­point­ment, it seemed, Bush turned to prom­in­ent so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. He tapped Pa­tri­cia Levesque, a gradu­ate of the fun­da­ment­al­ist Bob Jones Uni­versity, as his edu­ca­tion ad­viser (she still leads his two edu­ca­tion non­profits). He ap­poin­ted Bob Brooks, a state law­maker and phys­i­cian well-known for op­pos­ing abor­tion and ho­mo­sexu­al­ity, to serve as Flor­ida’s health sec­ret­ary. The first pres­id­ent of the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, a main­stay of the Chris­ti­an Right lobby in Wash­ing­ton, headed Bush’s De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies. Prom­in­ent act­iv­ists from Fo­cus on the Fam­ily and the Liberty Coun­sel (a con­ser­vat­ive Chris­ti­an law firm) were placed on the state nom­in­at­ing com­mis­sions that re­com­mend judges for the gov­ernor to ap­point.

(RE­LATED: Jeb Bush, Ac­know­ledging Fam­ily Mis­takes, Lays Out His For­eign Policy Vis­ion

But it was the strange case of Terri Schiavo where Bush’s faith emerged most pub­licly. By the time the Schiavo con­tro­versy hit the news, Bush had already shown an in­clin­a­tion to use his of­fice to in­ter­vene in in­di­vidu­al cases when he saw a mor­al im­per­at­ive at stake. In 2003, after a de­vel­op­ment­ally dis­abled wo­man was raped at a state-li­censed fa­cil­ity, be­com­ing preg­nant, Jeb asked that the fetus—in ad­di­tion to the wo­man—be giv­en a leg­al guard­i­an for pro­tec­tion. His re­quest was denied by a judge. Two years later, his ad­min­is­tra­tion tried to stop an­oth­er ward of the state, a 13-year-old girl, from hav­ing an abor­tion. “It was es­sen­tially tan­tamount to for­cing chil­dren to have chil­dren,” says Howard Si­mon, the dir­ect­or of the Flor­ida ACLU, which helped rep­res­ent the girl. (She was ul­ti­mately al­lowed to ter­min­ate her preg­nancy.)

The struggle over Schiavo, a young wo­man who had been in a ve­get­at­ive state since col­lapsing in 1990, had been on­go­ing for more than a dec­ade when Bush got in­volved. The dis­pute pit­ted her par­ents, who wanted to keep her alive, against her hus­band, who wanted to re­move her from life sup­port. The gov­ernor entered the fray in 2003, and for nearly two years, he would fight on her par­ents’ side in one of the most ac­ri­mo­ni­ous end-of-life cases in U.S. his­tory. When a judge ruled that Schiavo’s feed­ing tube could be re­moved, Bush pushed the state Le­gis­lature to pass a law that gave him the au­thor­ity to have the tube re­in­ser­ted. When that law was struck down, he ap­pealed. When he lost that ap­peal, he took his case to the U.S. Su­preme Court, which de­clined to hear it. Bush then reached out to his broth­er and to Con­gress, which voted to al­low Schiavo’s par­ents to again ap­peal the case—a pe­ti­tion that courts quickly denied.

Where some saw a gross over­reach of state power in­to cit­izens’ most private de­cisions—and most Flor­idi­ans, like most Amer­ic­ans, dis­ap­proved of the way the situ­ation was handled—pro-life Chris­ti­ans saw a hero­ic ef­fort. “Here’s a man who wanted to err on the side of life, and he gave it his all,” says Mike Mc­Car­ron, who was spokes­man for the Flor­ida Cath­ol­ic bish­ops while Bush was in of­fice. “If he be­lieved in something, he would do everything he could.” Ul­ti­mately, Bush couldn’t keep Schiavo alive; she died on March 31, 2005. But un­like many mem­bers of Con­gress, who have openly re­gret­ted their in­volve­ment in the Schiavo af­fair, Bush has stead­fastly de­fen­ded his ac­tions. “This was a vis­ion that was cost­ing him polit­ic­al cap­it­al,” says Ken Con­nor, an an­ti­abor­tion act­iv­ist and law­yer who rep­res­en­ted the gov­ernor in the case. “But he nev­er ex­pressed any­thing oth­er than com­pas­sion and that he and the gov­ern­ment had a re­spons­ib­il­ity.”

By the end of his eight years as gov­ernor, Bush had cre­ated a new mod­el for faith-based gov­ern­ing—one that was over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lar, ac­cord­ing to polls at the time, with evan­gel­ic­als in Flor­ida. But while many Amer­ic­ans still re­mem­ber the Schiavo con­tro­versy, Bush’s as­so­ci­ation with Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ism has faded in the years since he left of­fice. And even when he was gov­ernor, he was cau­tious about trum­pet­ing his Cath­ol­ic con­vic­tions. “Let me put it this way: I saw him in the back of the church a lot,” says Mc­Car­ron, who at­ten­ded Mass reg­u­larly with Bush in Tal­l­a­hassee. “His re­li­gious val­ues over­lapped with his polit­ic­al and per­son­al val­ues. But I don’t re­call an in­stance where he pub­licly said any­thing about it. He wouldn’t back away from [his faith] for a second. But by the same token, he’s just not go­ing to lead with that.”

Bush’s faith-in­spired ef­forts to keep Terri Schiavo alive fired up both ad­mirers and de­tract­ors. (Spen­cer Platt/Getty Im­ages)

More than a dec­ade later, sur­roun­ded by Re­pub­lic­an rivals shout­ing their testi­mon­ies and tea-party plat­forms from the rooftops, Bush’s re­cord seems to count for little. “He’s not talk­ing about life. He’s not talk­ing about fam­ily. He’s not talk­ing about re­li­gious liberty. And those are our core is­sues,” says John Stem­ber­ger, a former Bush ap­pointee who is the pres­id­ent of the Flor­ida Fam­ily Policy Coun­cil. “Yeah, he’ll an­swer a ques­tion. That’s what he’ll do. But he’s not cham­pi­on­ing any of our is­sues. So our view is this: Why would we pick Jeb, when we’ve got five oth­er cham­pi­ons on our is­sues?”

THE SUN HAD not yet ris­en over South Beach when Mark DeMoss strolled onto the first tee at the Bilt­more Coun­try Club in March 2014 for a round with Flor­ida’s former gov­ernor. DeMoss, a pub­lic-re­la­tions guru who has rep­res­en­ted some of Amer­ica’s fore­most Chris­ti­an lead­ers and groups, served as Mitt Rom­ney’s “evan­gel­ic­al whisper­er” in 2008 and 2012, in­tro­du­cing the Mor­mon can­did­ate to in­flu­en­tial Chris­ti­an audi­ences, vouch­ing for his val­ues, and set­ting up a much-pub­li­cized meet­ing with the Rev. Billy Gra­ham. Now, after nearly six years at Rom­ney’s side, DeMoss was mov­ing on, eager to eval­u­ate po­ten­tial can­did­ates and see if any of them was worth sup­port­ing. First on his list was Bush, whom he’d nev­er met. Know­ing that he would soon be head­ing to Flor­ida on a fam­ily va­ca­tion, DeMoss had asked a mu­tu­al friend if a brief meet­ing could be ar­ranged—maybe a half-hour? A week later, he found him­self spend­ing an ex­ten­ded, leis­urely morn­ing with the po­ten­tial can­did­ate.

DeMoss didn’t know what to ex­pect. What he got was hours of cas­u­al con­ver­sa­tion with someone whose mind—and mouth—nev­er stood still. “He talked while he played, talked while he putted. You can’t mess up his con­cen­tra­tion,” DeMoss says. The dia­logue con­tin­ued after 18 holes with an un­hur­ried brunch. Over egg whites, oat­meal, and cof­fee, Bush talked about his fam­ily, his re­cord in Flor­ida, and his thoughts about the pres­id­en­tial bid he was pon­der­ing. If he ran, Bush said, he wanted to do so “joy­fully,” to “lift peoples’ spir­its” and preach op­tim­ism. “He was talk­ing about tack­ling some really tough is­sues in a thought­ful and sub­stant­ive way,” DeMoss re­calls.

One thing nev­er came up: re­li­gion. Not once did Bush, in the course of a half-day spent with one of the polit­ic­al world’s most in­flu­en­tial evan­gel­ic­al am­bas­sad­ors, bring up his faith. Neither did DeMoss. But there was no need, he says: Everything Bush was say­ing and do­ing seemed in­formed by the core val­ues that DeMoss was look­ing for. By the time brunch was done, DeMoss’s mind was made up. No need to vis­it with oth­er can­did­ates. “I told him then that I’d help him or nobody,” DeMoss re­calls. (He is now work­ing un­of­fi­cially on Bush’s be­half, help­ing to co­ordin­ate faith-based out­reach and do­ing “whatever they want me to do,” he says.)

(RE­LATED: The Battle Between Scott Walk­er and Jeb Bush Is Un­der­way)

DeMoss is hardly alone: In fact, power­ful Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives are op­er­at­ing what amounts to a stealth cam­paign on Bush’s be­half. Some are old al­lies from the Flor­ida days; oth­ers are hol­d­overs from George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 cam­paigns. Some are both, in­clud­ing Ral­ph Reed, pres­id­ent of the Faith and Free­dom Co­ali­tion, a long­time friend of Jeb’s who served as South­east re­gion­al chair­man of George W.’s 2004 reelec­tion ef­fort (and thus prac­tic­ally lived in Flor­ida). Mul­tiple GOP sources say that Reed has been ur­ging Jeb Bush for sev­er­al years to make a 2016 run and spoke with him re­cently to game out the cam­paign. Like many of the or­gan­iz­a­tions that Bush’s sup­port­ers lead, Reed’s co­ali­tion de­mands im­par­ti­al­ity from its lead­ers, so Reed can’t openly back his man—un­less, as some sus­pect will hap­pen, Reed ul­ti­mately de­cides to join the cam­paign of­fi­cially. (Reed de­clined to com­ment for this story.)

While the can­did­ate isn’t hit­ting the hust­ings to woo rank-and-file Chris­ti­an voters, he’s been busy sur­repti­tiously build­ing a for­mid­able co­ali­tion of so­cially con­ser­vat­ive lu­minar­ies. Last sum­mer, Bush flew to Col­or­ado for a private lunch­eon with the brass of Fo­cus on the Fam­ily. Sev­er­al of Amer­ica’s best-con­nec­ted evan­gel­ic­als broke bread with Bush, in­clud­ing Jim Daly, Fo­cus’s pres­id­ent, whose ra­dio pro­gram reaches a large, loy­al audi­ence, and Tim Goeg­lein, who was the faith li­ais­on in George W. Bush’s White House. People fa­mil­i­ar with the meet­ing—and un­af­fili­ated with Bush—say the former gov­ernor made a strik­ing im­pres­sion, one that echoed through the up­per­most ech­el­ons of the evan­gel­ic­al world. (Neither Daly nor Goeg­lein would com­ment.)

Bush also met last sum­mer with Rus­sell Moore, pres­id­ent of the Eth­ics and Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion of the South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion. It was an all-day af­fair, Moore says, in which faith was a prime top­ic. Bush shared his per­son­al faith jour­ney; the two prayed to­geth­er, talked about is­sues of ur­gency to evan­gel­ic­als—re­li­gious liber­ties in par­tic­u­lar—and bon­ded over their love of C.”ŠS. Lewis. Moore, who pre­vi­ously had no re­la­tion­ship with Bush, says he came away awe­struck. “He was re­mark­ably en­gaged in­tel­lec­tu­ally,” Moore says, and “able to talk about a gamut of is­sues with ex­traordin­ary de­tail “… and not just the is­sues you’d ex­pect a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate to be aware of.” Bush wowed Moore by ap­pear­ing to know the names of pas­tors at “any giv­en church” in Flor­ida. Most im­port­ant, though, he con­vinced Moore that he was a true so­cial con­ser­vat­ive. “There have been those, over the past year, that have sug­ges­ted that Gov­ernor Bush is some kind of Jon Hunts­man when it comes to so­cial is­sues,” Moore says. “And that’s one of the things I wanted to find out. And it’s just not the case.”

Bush has con­tin­ued schedul­ing time with Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers. In Feb­ru­ary, he met with Per­kins dur­ing the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence. Bush’s PAC also re­cently hired a seni­or ad­viser, Jordan Seku­low, who is an out­spoken foe of same-sex mar­riage and who dir­ects the Amer­ic­an Cen­ter for Law and Justice, the con­ser­vat­ive counter to the ACLU.

“Jeb may have Je­sus in his heart,” says one ob­serv­er, “but the Gos­pel isn’t on his lips so far, and re­li­gious voters want that.”

To woo Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives, Bush will have to do more than re­mind them that he was a trail­blazer for school choice in Flor­ida; he’ll also have to get up to speed on is­sues that wer­en’t dom­in­at­ing the agenda when he was gov­ernor—Obama-care’s con­tra­cep­tion cov­er­age man­date, for in­stance, and re­li­gious liberty con­cerns such as wheth­er busi­ness own­ers can de­cline to serve LGBT cus­tom­ers or re­fuse to hire openly gay em­ploy­ees. In this en­deavor, his old friend Jim Towey will be a key as­set. When Bush first ran for gov­ernor in 1994, Towey was on the oth­er side, serving as Gov. Chiles’s dir­ect­or of Flor­ida’s Health and Hu­man Ser­vices agency. The loss that sparked Bush’s con­ver­sion led to an after-elec­tion lunch with Towey, a re­l­at­ive stranger but also a high-pro­file Cath­ol­ic whose brain Bush was eager to pick. The two quickly be­came the closest of friends, and that friend­ship, in turn, led to Towey’s ap­point­ment as the second dir­ect­or of George W. Bush’s faith-based ini­ti­at­ives. Towey is now pres­id­ent of Miami’s Ave Maria Uni­versity, one of the na­tion’s fore­most in­cub­at­ors of con­ser­vat­ive Cath­ol­ic doc­trine, while serving un­of­fi­cially as Bush’s point man for re­li­gious out­reach.

“He’s really, really im­port­ant—be­cause of his long-stand­ing per­son­al re­la­tion­ship with the gov­ernor, and be­cause he’s pres­id­ent of Ave Maria, so he gets the HHS man­date and the oth­er things evan­gel­ic­als are con­cerned about,” Moore says. “People say [Bush] hasn’t run since 2002, and that he doesn’t un­der­stand the cur­rent is­sues. Yes, he does—be­cause he’s got Jim Towey work­ing with him.”

Towey is co­ordin­at­ing an ex­clus­ive, in­vit­a­tion-only sum­mit between Bush and a bold­face roster of Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives; the de­tails are still be­ing worked out, but the meet­ing is ex­pec­ted to oc­cur in the next few months. Towey ex­pects it will un­der­score Bush’s strength with so­cially con­ser­vat­ive movers and shakers. “I’ve talked with some of the most prom­in­ent Cath­ol­ics and evan­gel­ic­als in Amer­ica, and they’re with him,” Towey says. “If he’s in, they’re in.”

Bush’s friend knows it’s a tough­er sale at the grass­roots, where folks don’t know the man of faith he does. Towey re­calls, years ago, ar­ran­ging for Bush and his wife, Columba, to vis­it with Moth­er Teresa’s priest in the slums of Tijuana dur­ing a trip to Mex­ico. Col­leagues who were there later told Towey that the gov­ernor began weep­ing when he en­countered a des­ti­tute wo­man singing a hymn. It’s the kind of story, Towey says, that Bush him­self would nev­er tell—a reti­cence that con­trib­utes, he fears, to his repu­ta­tion of be­ing in­suf­fi­ciently fer­vent about his re­li­gion.

“Jeb is not so much in­ter­ested in talk­ing about God, but the ac­tions,” Towey says. “He is very much in­ter­ested in faith that’s lived out; he’s not so in­ter­ested in the theo-logy, as much as the theo­logy in ac­tion.” He points to a 2012 com­mence­ment ad­dress Bush gave at Ave Maria, in which he touched only peri­pher­ally on faith. “It was an in­ter­est­ing speech,” Towey says. “Here he is at a very Cath­ol­ic uni­versity, but he talked mostly about the value and im­port­ance of work. To Jeb, that’s spir­itu­ally rooted—that you go out and work, and do for oth­ers, and not be a spec­tat­or in life.”

TODAY BUSH IS an act­ive mem­ber of the Church of the Little Flower, near his home in af­flu­ent Cor­al Gables. The second-old­est par­ish in Miami-Dade County, the bust­ling, bi­lin­gual church of more than 3,000 fam­il­ies is full of in­flu­en­tial mem­bers. Bush’s priest, the Rev. Mi­chael Dav­is, de­scribes him as “gen­er­ously sup­port­ive of our par­ish.” Jeb and Columba like to wor­ship at the 10:30 a.m. Mass, the one with the full choir; re­cently, their grand­daugh­ter was bap­tized at the church. “He is a val­ued mem­ber of our com­munity,” Dav­is says. “I am de­lighted that he feels spir­itu­ally sup­por­ted here.”

Bush needs to show that side of him­self—the one who at­tends Mass, car­ries a ros­ary, and keeps a Bible in his of­fice; the one who is be­loved by people like Jim Towey—to Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives if he is to win them over. However, he ap­pears de­term­ined to do this on his own terms. For in­stance, he is skip­ping the Iowa Faith and Free­dom Co­ali­tion’s spring kick­off event on April 24—an all-day af­fair that is con­sidered man­dat­ory for any­one who hopes to win a mean­ing­ful slice of Iowa’s evan­gel­ic­al elect­or­ate. It’s an ab­sence made even more not­able by the fact that the co­ali­tion is run by Reed, Bush’s old pal and po­ten­tial ace in the hole with con­ser­vat­ive Chris­ti­ans. Steve Scheffler, pres­id­ent of the Faith and Free­dom Co­ali­tion’s Iowa chapter, was ini­tially dis­ap­poin­ted at Bush’s de­cision not to at­tend. But in the weeks since, he says, Bush’s team has reached out, re­peatedly, to nail down ar­range­ments for a very dif­fer­ent type of event—a get-to-know-you “house party” for Bush and evan­gel­ic­al act­iv­ists. It’s the same type of event Bush’s people are hop­ing to co­ordin­ate with Bob Vander Plaats and the Fam­ily Lead­er.

Scheffler thinks Bush’s ap­proach is fine—not every can­did­ate should ad­opt the faith-on-his-sleeve style of George W. Bush, he says, and it’s un­fair to push the com­par­is­on on Jeb. “I don’t think most Chris­ti­ans want their can­did­ates to come out and say, ‘I’m a com­mit­ted Chris­ti­an be­cause A, B, C, and D.’ It needs to be subtle. I don’t think Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives in Iowa ex­pect that from Bush, or even want that. A lot of it will be based on words and ac­tions, and how faith drives his ac­tions,” Scheffler says. “I don’t think Jeb Bush has to mim­ic what his broth­er did. You’ve got to be your­self, you know?”

Clearly, though, Bush be­ing him­self isn’t cut­ting it for many so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. The only way he can cap­ture their hearts and votes, some say, is to throw him­self in­to one of the hot cul­tur­al battles of the day—per­haps by vow­ing to veto the Em­ploy­ment Non-Dis­crim­in­a­tion Act, which would ban hir­ing on the basis of sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion or gender iden­tity, if it passes while he’s in the White House. The bill, which has passed the Sen­ate but stalled in the House, has be­come a flash point for so­cial con­ser­vat­ives who view it—like Obama­care—as one more way Wash­ing­ton might trample on the re­li­gious liber­ties of busi­ness own­ers. “Just that one thing would be enorm­ous,” says John Stem­ber­ger.

But de­cry­ing ENDA is pre­cisely the type of pickle that Bush doesn’t want to find him­self in. ENDA may be a mon­stros­ity in the minds of so­cial con­ser­vat­ives, but lash­ing out at the bill is hardly a re­cipe for cam­paign­ing “joy­fully.” Mod­er­ate and ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an donors are count­ing on Bush to tran­scend cul­ture-war di­vis­ive­ness and broaden the party’s ap­peal with young­er and minor­ity voters. In its early stages—and des­pite the fact that Bush op­poses same-sex mar­riage—his cam­paign has been re­mark­ably gay-friendly, at least in a Re­pub­lic­an con­text. Mike Murphy, Bush’s Cali­for­nia-based chief strategist, fought to over­turn the state’s ban on same-sex mar­riage; Bush’s seni­or com­mu­nic­a­tions ad­viser, Tim Miller, is the most prom­in­ent openly gay op­er­at­ive in the mod­ern Re­pub­lic­an Party. Even with Seku­low’s re­cent hir­ing, the cam­paign is show­ing un­mis­tak­ably ecu­men­ic­al tend­en­cies.

Some so­cial con­ser­vat­ives warn that Bush’s fail­ure to speak out strongly on their is­sues could doom him in the gen­er­al elec­tion, be­cause evan­gel­ic­als won’t be mo­bil­ized to turn out. That is al­most cer­tainly an idle threat: If Bush sur­vives the primar­ies, there’s little doubt that Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ive voters will get be­hind him. Even Mitt Rom­ney’s Mor­mon­ism and one­time iden­tity as a cent­rist didn’t de­ter them in 2012—Rom­ney won as much sup­port from evan­gel­ic­al voters as George W. Bush did in 2004. Bush’s Cath­oli­cism will be no obstacle, either. The his­tor­ic­al mis­trust between evan­gel­ic­al Prot­est­ants and Cath­ol­ics is a dis­tant memory now, after dec­ades in which con­ser­vat­ives from both tra­di­tions have partnered on so­cial is­sues un­der a strategy known as “co-bel­li­ger­ency.” This year’s cycle will likely in­clude no few­er than five Cath­ol­ic con­tenders on the Re­pub­lic­an side—one of whom, Rick San­tor­um, rode the evan­gel­ic­al vote to vic­tory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. “When I talk to evan­gel­ic­als about Jeb Bush, the fact that he’s Cath­ol­ic nev­er comes up,” says Rus­sell Moore. “Lit­er­ally, I have nev­er had an evan­gel­ic­al men­tion it.”

But Bush has oth­er obstacles to win­ning the con­ser­vat­ive Chris­ti­an votes that he needs to se­cure the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion. “You have to have Je­sus in your heart and the Gos­pel on your lips,” says Henry Olsen of the Eth­ics and Pub­lic Policy Cen­ter, a con­ser­vat­ive think tank. “Jeb may have Je­sus in his heart, but the Gos­pel isn’t on his lips so far, and re­li­gious voters want that.”

His best bet, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al re­li­gious and polit­ic­al thinkers, may be to roll out a time-worn strategy: Share the story of his faith, in a heart­felt way, to con­nect with val­ues voters. In Janu­ary, in the un­likely set­ting of an auto-deal­ers’ gath­er­ing in San Fran­cisco, Bush came as close to testi­fy­ing as he has so far in this cam­paign. Dur­ing the ques­tion-and-an­swer por­tion, after he had talked at great length about tax policy, Bush was asked what he does for fun. He loves Sundays, he said: “I don’t work on Sundays. I play golf really fast so that I can have break­fast really fast so I can go to Mass”—he paused—“slower.” The crowd laughed and he smiled, loosen­ing up a bit. “I can’t ask the priest to ac­cel­er­ate that. I prob­ably would if I could.” More laughter. “Please don’t tell Fath­er Dav­is—he would be very up­set that I said that.”

Then he got more ser­i­ous. “Bushes aren’t good about spill­ing our guts on things that are private,” he said. But he did—talk­ing about con­vert­ing to his wife’s Cath­oli­cism, how it strengthened his faith, and how it helped him as a gov­ernor and, now, as a pres­id­en­tial con­tender. “It gives me a serenity that, in a world of a lot of tur­bu­lence, is really im­port­ant,” he said. “There are views I have that are groun­ded in faith that really aren’t ne­go­ti­able. And it just sim­pli­fies things, par­tic­u­larly in pub­lic life, where you’re al­ways asked to modi­fy this and modi­fy that.” If faith drives you, he said, you stick to your guns. “Be­cause it’s more im­port­ant than polit­ics.” 

COR­REC­TIONS: An earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­spelled Terri Schiavo’s name. In ad­di­tion, the art­icle ori­gin­ally stated that Marco Ru­bio wor­ships at the Church of the Little Flower when in Flor­ida. He is re­gistered at a dif­fer­ent church.

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