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Jeb Bush was a severely conservative governor -- will the GOP care?

On everything from abortion to guns to taxes, Jeb Bush was a solid conservative as governor. But he may have trouble making GOP voters believe it.
Nancy Kramer, of Pinellas Park, Fla., asks for the help of Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla., to save the life of Terri Schiavo outside the Woodside Hospice where Schiavo is a patient on March 24, 2005 in Pinellas Park, Fla.
Nancy Kramer, of Pinellas Park, Fla., asks for the help of Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla., to save the life of Terri Schiavo outside the Woodside Hospice where Schiavo is a patient on March 24, 2005 in Pinellas Park, Fla.

The reactions within the GOP to Jeb Bush’s escalating flirtation with a White House bid have mostly fallen into two polarized camps. There’s Bush’s supporters, most notably concentrated in the party’s establishment and donor class, who see him as an electable candidate who can appeal to the center better than any of his prospective rivals. Then there’s the grassroots right, who view Bush as just the latest watered-down party elite they’ve being asked to sacrifice their principles to support for president.

Lost in the debate is much discussion of Bush’s actual time as governor, where many of his closest observers argue his state record was far more conservative than his national reputation suggests today. 

RELATED: As Jeb dives in, focus turns to big-money donors

“I think if he starts off in Iowa, he has a very strong social and cultural record,” UNF professor Matthew Corrigan, author of Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida, a book making the case for the ex-governor’s right wing bona fides, told msnbc.

In the best-known example, Bush led a crusade to block Florida resident Michael Schiavo, from removing his wife Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube after more than a decade in a vegetative state in order to let her expire naturally. But he also ended affirmative action by executive order, signed the “Stand Your Ground” gun law that drew national attention after the Trayvon Martin shooting, instituted faith-based prison reforms, cut billions of dollars in taxes, and created a school voucher program. He opposed embryonic stem cell research and thinks the jury’s out on man-made climate change.

"It's almost laughable and maybe even hysterical for people who live outside of Florida to claim that he's a moderate."'

Corrigan isn’t the only Floridian making the argument this month that the conventional wisdom taking hold around Bush doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. S.V. Date, author of Jeb: America’s Next Bush, wrote in Politico magazine that the push to label Jeb a moderate was “mind-boggling.” Veteran Tampa Bay Times reporter Adam Smith mocked the idea Bush was a “moderate squish” in a column that quoted Bush-era legislative leaders from both parties alternately lauding and condemning his conservative ways.

“For us who live in Florida, who experienced the eight-year Jeb Bush governorship, it's almost laughable and maybe even hysterical for people who live outside of Florida to claim that he's a moderate," former state House Speaker Will Weatherford told Smith. 

Bush will get a chance to refocus attention on this aspect of his record, for better or worse, with the upcoming release of 250,000 emails from his time in office. The first thing Corrigan plans to do is go straight to the Schiavo section and it’s a good bet that most of news coverage will lead with the episode as well. Already, Michael Schiavo reemerged this week to condemn the former governor’s handling of the case in an interview with ThinkProgress.

"What he did as governor is going to be irrelevant."'

Some background on the case: After legal efforts by Mrs. Schiavo’s parents to stop Mr. Schiavo from going forward with the plan to remove her feeding tube failed, then-Florida governor Jeb Bush signed “Terri’s Law” in 2003 granting the governor’s office the authority to reinsert the feeding tube. "I'm probably the most pro-life governor in modern times,” Bush boasted at the time. After the courts threw out the law on separation of powers ground and sided with Michael Schiavo the next year, President George W. Bush signed an emergency law giving federal courts the authority to intervene. They rejected the family’s appeals as well and Mrs. Schiavo died on March 31, 2005. While Jeb moved past the episode without much political consequence, his brother suffered major political fallout as critics accused Washington Republicans of overreaching to appease the religious right.

The reemergence of stories like the Schiavo case could undermine Bush’s centrist image, but they also serve as a reminder that he stood with activists on the right even at times when it was politically difficult to do so. It’s an open question, however, whether conservatives will want to hear it. 

RELATED: A 'Terry Schiavo moment'

“What he did as governor is going to be irrelevant,” Iowa radio host Steve Deace, a prominent social conservative, told msnbc. “They’re going to look at how he’s positioned himself nationally.” 

A cautionary tale for Bush might be Jon Huntsman, who amassed a solid conservative record of his own as governor of Utah only to flame out in the primaries running as a pragmatist who wasn't afraid to tweak the right when it suited him.

Bush starts with two glaring black marks against him. Since leaving office, he’s dedicated his time to advocating for Common Core, an education standards initiative that’s increasingly radioactive on the right, and championing immigration reform, another issue where hardline opponents have gained the upper hand within the party. 

On both issues, Bush took similar positions as governor without stirring up the same level of animosity. But he last ran in 2002 and the party has in many ways shifted under his feet since then. Common Core only emerged as a leading tea party issue in the Obama era and Bush’s support for education standards as governor came in the context of a broader set of reforms like vouchers and teacher accountability that are popular with Republicans. On immigration, Bush’s reformist stance was hardly out of the ordinary for a Republican in multiethnic Florida and he’s had the bad luck to catch the national party at a moment where the anti-“amnesty” right is reasserting control. In both cases, his position is popular with the business wing of the party most invested in drafting him as a counterweight to the right.  

Given how close Bush is to both of these causes – he founded an education advocacy group after leaving office and authored a book on immigration reform in 2013 that offered only halfhearted concessions to conservative critics – it would take a truly epic flip flop to get on the right’s good side. Bush has strongly indicated that his goal is to bring the party along with him rather than kowtow to its base.

“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 willing to be, ‘lose the primary to win the general’ without violating your principles,” Bush told a conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

Those who’ve worked with Bush also say it's hard to imagine him jettisoning positions important to him to appease primary voters.  

“His character is consistent and his principles are consistent as well,” Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who worked on Bush’s 2002 campaign, told msnbc. “I experienced this firsthand. He’d tell you, ‘this is what I believe -- your poll is fine, but this is what I believe.’”

“His record as governor speaks for itself,” Ana Navarro, a Florida GOP strategist and longtime Bush friend, said in an e-mail. “He was a pragmatic, driven, empathetic, and effective executive as Governor. I don't think if he runs, Jeb's looking to fit a niche or fit into the race in any particular way. He's going to be himself.”

Assuming Bush stays the course, Deace sees Jeb’s political arc as a kind of reverse Mitt Romney -- and not in a good way. Romney was a relatively liberal pro-choice governor of Massachusetts known for passing the health care law that inspired Obamacare, but he won the party's nomination in 2012 by jettisoning many of his old positions and running as a dependable conservative stalwart. 

“Mitt Romney had a heinous record as governor. Heinous. To the left of Harry Reid,” Deace said. “When you run for president, it’s about how you position yourself nationally more than your actual record.”