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In South Carolina, Jeb Bush steers clear of politics

Jeb Bush steered clear of politics in a graduation speech — but his visit to this early primary state speaks volumes.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at commencement exercises for The University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., on Dec. 15, 2014. (Tracy Glantz/AP)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at commencement exercises for The University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., on Dec. 15, 2014.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina Jeb Bush said he asked his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, what he should say in his commencement address at the University of South Carolina. "She thought about it briefly," Bush told graduates here, "and she said, 'Jeb, speak for about 10 minutes and then sit down and shut up."

His advice to graduates: You don't have to follow in your parents' footsteps, even if that seems like an easy path. "I can tell you from personal experience, if your parents worked in politics, well, you know the rest," he said to laughter.

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Otherwise, Bush's speech steered mostly clear of politics, even as his visit to this first-in-the-South primary state only increased the volume of the discussion about whether he plans to run for president. He recently told a Florida ABC affiliate that he's planning to release 250,000 emails from his time as governor and write an e-book about his tenure."Don't be afraid to experiment and change and even fail, because it's part of life," Bush said in his speech, telling graduates not to be afraid to change jobs. "Most jobs don't last more than four years."

"Don’t be afraid to experiment and change and even fail, because it’s part of life. Most jobs don’t last more than four years."'

He offered three lessons for graduates to help them decide whether they want to "run a state house, a classroom or a lemonade stand."

"Dream big. Don't be afraid of change. And find joy everywhere you can," Bush said.

Bush also kept his schedule in South Carolina largely free of politics. He skipped a meeting of the state Republican committee that was taking place down the street from the university. He did meet with Gov. Nikki Haley, who he helped elect in 2010 and who aides point out has an official role with the University of South Carolina in her capacity as governor.

But that's not to say Bush hasn't been paying attention to the landscape here, the state that sealed brother George W. Bush's eventual presidential nomination over John McCain in 2000. If Jeb Bush were to run for president in 2016, South Carolina is a state that could potentially play that role for him, as well -- traditionally, voters here have backed the establishment's favorite son.

During his last trip to this state, shortly before the November election, Jeb Bush met with a handful of key GOP officials and inquired about potential operatives on the ground -- asking after Warren Tompkins, who ran George W. Bush's 2000 campaign in South Carolina.

Still, there are signs the state -- and particularly the Republican Party -- are changing, and not in a way that would benefit Bush.

"The moderates who helped get George H.W. Bush get elected -- we are not that same party," Tompkins told msnbc. "We are not the same party that helped George W. Bush get elected."

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That uncertainty is driving the early 2016 activity in South Carolina. Political operatives and officials here say the most active candidate so far is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who's been trying to hire a state director and whose team has discussed starting mail advertising in the state as soon as January. His advisers are particularly concerned about how his national security record will play with the state's many military voters.

But Paul isn't the only one. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a team of staffers in the state last week. At least one key donor was invited to Miami for Sen. Marco Rubio's annual donor conference -- and Rubio's team has been in close touch with Tompkins, who used to be business partners with a top Rubio aide. Texas Gov. Rick Perry still has South Carolina Katon Dawson on the payroll and invited a number of state operatives and donors to sessions at the governor's mansion this month.

One wildcard here? Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who's made some operatives nervous with talk of running for president. For many Republicans here, loyalty to Graham would prevent them from helping others, or at least make it very uncomfortable.

"Lindsey," said one GOP official, in tone of voice at once irritated and amused, "has frozen a lot of people."