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Bush surprise announcement jump-starts 2016 contest

Jeb Bush announced on Tuesday he is actively exploring a presidential run, putting an end to weeks of rampant speculation about his plans.

In a bold move to corner early support from donors and party leaders, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced in a Facebook post Tuesday that he is weighing a presidential run, making him by far the most serious establishment candidate so far to toss his name into the ring. The news -- coming just a day after Bush delivered a decidedly non-political commencement address in South Carolina -- jump-started the 2016 Republican primaries and has far-reaching consequences for the entire GOP field. 

"I haven't committed to doing it, but this is a time that we should be celebrating the incredible opportunities that exist in this country and yet most people really don't feel it," Bush told NBC station WTVJ. "[They] think the government doesn't work for them and if I can get comfortable with being a candidate that gives people hope that we can fix some of these big problems that we have so that we can take advantage of some of our opportunities, that's what I'm pursuing."

While the Republican Party is loaded with big names looking at a potential candidacy, none of the top tier prospects have announced a campaign yet. Bush's early maneuvering, while short of an official entry into the race, could speed up the timetable for other candidates to signal their intentions as well. 

Bush said he had reached his decision after talking with his wife Columba and the rest of his family over Thanksgiving. 

"We shared good food and watched a whole lot of football," he wrote on Facebook. "We also talked about the future of our nation. As a result of these conversations and thoughtful consideration of the kind of strong leadership I think America needs, I have decided to actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States."

Bush said he will establish a political action committee soon that will raise funds in order "help me facilitate conversations with citizens across America to discuss the most critical challenges facing our exceptional nation" and "support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans." 

He added, "In the coming months, I hope to visit with many of you and have a conversation about restoring the promise of America."

Related: In South Carolina, Jeb Bush steers clear of politics

Bush, the son of former president George H.W. Bush and the brother of former president George W. Bush, enjoys strong cachet within the party, especially its donor class, thanks in part to his family connections. The name cuts both ways, however, as the last President Bush left office deeply unpopular after a bitter second term defined by flagging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina and finally a historic economic collapse. George H.W. Bush also has a difficult relationship with his party after breaking a pledge to raise taxes and losing to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

But Jeb Bush is more than just a family name: He spent two terms as governor in Florida, leaving office in 2007 with strong approval ratings, and has long enjoyed speculation as to whether he might try to follow his father and brother to the White House. In recent months, he's sought to position himself as an upbeat policy-minded candidate who's more focused on courting the middle than inflaming partisan tensions.

Other Republican contenders likely to seek the party's 2016 nomination include Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, among many others. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has also looked into a run, but shares many of his political supporters with Bush and could sit the race out as a result. A spokesman for Rubio, Alex Conant, told reporters the senator considers Bush a "formidable candidate" but wouldn't decide his own plans based on "who else might be running." Former New York Governor George Pataki told The Daily News on Tuesday that he was "very seriously" thinking about running.

Within the GOP's moneyed establishment wing, top party donors have raised concerns that a more hard line candidate like Cruz or Paul might drag the party down in a race against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has not yet announced a run. But donors are also reportedly worried about clogging the field with too many of their preferred candidates, raising pressure on establishment-favored candidates like Bush, Christie, and Romney to make their intentions clear early or risk letting top financiers coalesce around one of their rivals.

Bush's move, along with a recent announcement that he will release 250,000 emails from his time as governor, sends a signal that he means business after recent press reports raised doubts about his commitment to a race. An article in Bloomberg this month examined Bush's investment career, which includes offshore holdings not dissimilar to those that helped Democrats paint Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire in 2012. The piece quoted a Republican consultant arguing Bush's continued work in such ventures indicated he wasn't serious about a run. A few days later, Politico reported that Romney himself was considering another run in part, his backers claimed, because he perceived Bush and the broader GOP field as weak. 

Polls show the GOP field wide open, with no obvious frontrunner, giving Bush a strong opportunity. A recent McClatchy/Marist survey found Romney leading the field with 19% and Bush in second at 14%, but Bush's support jumped to 16% and first place without Romney's name included in the field. 

Winning the nomination won't be easy for Bush, however. After more than a decade since his last campaign in 2002, he'll face off against a cast of fresher faces with hard-earned experience courting Republican voters in the tea party era. On two critical issues in particular, Bush is strongly at odds with conservative activists, who have grown far more organized and influential since he and his brother left office. 

One is education. Bush has played a national role both as governor and as a private citizen in promoting Common Core State Standards, an educational initiative aimed at lifting math and reading standards. While Common Core was a relatively nonpartisan issue during his time in office, conservatives have rallied against it in recent years as a federal intrusion into education. While widely embraced by states at first, prominent Republican governors like Louisiana's Jindal have abandoned past support for the standards in wake of the tea party backlash. Republican candidates for Senate and Congress in 2014 almost universally opposed the standards. 

Related: Jeb Bush in a bind over torture report

The other is immigration reform, where Bush has forcefully called on the party to pass legislation that provides legal status to undocumented immigrants. National Republican leaders briefly flirted with the idea after President Obama's 2012 victory as a means to improve their dismal performance with Latino and Asian voters. While the Senate passed a bipartisan bill last year that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,  the House took no action as conservative activists dragged the party decisively back to the right and demanded Congress focus on increasing deportations and stepping up border enforcement.

A wave of Central America refugees over the summer and Obama's decision last month to unilaterally protect millions of immigrants from deportation further inflamed Republican voters, many of whom will undoubtedly be skeptical of Bush, who earlier this year said many illegal immigrants come to the U.S. as an "act of love" for their families. 

"A candidate gets to persuade," he told WTVJ on Tuesday when asked about potential difficulties over the issue. "And I think there's a compelling case that if we want to be young and dynamic again we have to ... make legal immigration easier than illegal immigration, that we control our borders, that we enforce the laws and that we embrace our immigrant heritage and allow this country to take off."

Bush has publicly expressed concern throughout the year that the party's right wing will demand he take a harsher conservative tack than he's willing to provide.

“I kinda know how a Republican can win, whether it’s me or somebody else – and it has to be much more uplifting, much more positive, much more wiling to be, ‘lose the primary to win the general’ without violating your principles," he told a gathering of CEOs at an event sponsored by the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. "It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you.”

Should he get through the primary, he'll also face challenges in the general election. In addition to the baggage surrounding the Bush family name, Democratic opposition research firm American Bridge indicated in a publicly released candidate dossier that they intend to make his wealth and investing career prime targets as well. Brad Woodhouse, president of American Bridge, mockingly referred to the former governor "Jeb Romney" on Twitter following his Facebook announcement. 

With his latest steps, Bush will get his chance to find out whether, as he likes to put it, he can run "joyfully" in today's political environment.