Jeb Bush argues experience matters in Michigan

Story highlights

  • Jeb Bush touted his gubernatorial experience when visiting Emergent BioSolutions in Lansing, Michigan on Thursday.
  • "I think experience matters a lot in the leadership position," Bush said.

Lansing, Michigan (CNN)Jeb Bush is showcasing his tenure as a two-term governor and driving home the argument that firsthand experience matters more than high-flying rhetoric, as he tries to break past the crowded field of Republican presidential contenders.

Visiting a Michigan plant that manufactures antidotes for medical emergencies and bioterrorism threats, Bush recalled dealing with the 2001 anthrax attack that killed five people in Boca Raton, Florida, not long after the 9/11 attacks.
"It was extraordinary how scary it was because there was not enough information at the time and we got through it," Bush said at a town hall hosted by Emergent BioSolutions in Lansing, which produces an anthrax vaccine.
    "I had a front row seat because of my brother of course -- we all did to watch what happened -- but I also as governor really took this seriously," he said. The protocol implemented by the state in the wake of the anthrax attacks, he said, also helped prepare the state for "more routine disasters: Eight hurricanes; four tropical storms in 17 months."
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    Bush's memories dealing with anthrax illustrated a point that he hopes will set him apart from a younger, less practiced pool of competition. In his comments, Bush tip-toed near '3 a.m. phone call' territory, saying that when bad things happen, voters will want someone who's long been in the driver's seat.
    "There's going to be all sorts of disasters that take place -- natural disasters, attacks on the homeland -- it's a certainty in an uncertain world that this president and the next president is going to have to confront all sorts of challenges where his leadership or her leadership is going to matter," he said.
    Bush lamented that in today's world "experience is somewhat discounted" while "giving a mighty fine speech is somewhat elevated."
    "I think experience matters a lot in the leadership position, and the presidency is certainly one of those," he continued.
    So does that mean he's running for president?
    "Not yet," he told reporters.
    His trip to Michigan, where he pledged to spend "a lot" of time if he becomes a candidate, marked another visit in which the former governor acted and sounded like a candidate, yet fell just short of passing out buttons and stickers for a campaign.
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    He talks to the media regularly, dishes out a set of talking points, and is developing a platform that's growing more and more in focus as he gets ready for a trip to Europe in June, followed by what's expected to be his presidential launch this summer.
    But thanks to a loophole in federal election rules, Bush is able to put off an official bid and prolong his ability to raise money for his super PAC, "Right to Rise." Campaign finance watchdog groups, annoyed with an approach that other White House hopefuls have embraced as well, called on the Justice Department to look into the strategy.
    But with a new poll showing Bush tied in first with four other candidates at 10% each, the pressure is on for the candidates to draw clearer contrasts between each other.

    For his part, Bush indicated on Thursday that he'll make his experience a focal point on the trail.
    In subtle comparisons to the younger guns in the race -- three of whom are first-term senators—Bush has laced every speech with specific references of what he accomplished in Florida, from education reform to spending reductions.
    "I think a lot of people think that you can't do anything anymore in Washington, and I would urge people to reconsider that," he said Thursday. "We have to fix a few big complex things, and I have a record to do it."
    On the resume argument, though, he'll have some competition. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has also made his 14 years as governor a key part of his message, as has former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who served for 11 years. Govs. Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich are all in their second terms.
    Bush, who's fluent in Spanish and has made South Florida his home, also argues that he's got a rare ability to connect with nontraditional GOP voters. Talking to reporters Thursday, Bush pointed to his electoral success with Hispanic voters in his re-election effort -- he won 61% of the demographic.
    "How many people can make that claim? And I can make it based on a reality," he said.
    As for what he'll do in 2016, Bush said he's "moving along" and "getting close to making a decision," but for now said he's still in the "wandering around" stages.
    "Wandering around and listening to people is part of the process to get to the point where I'm going to make a decision," he said. "And I've had a blast doing it."