LAS VEGAS -- Many of the Republican Party's most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida governor Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race, courting him and his intimates and starting talks on fundraising strategy.
Concerned that the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal has damaged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political standing and alarmed by the steady rise of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, prominent donors, conservative leaders and longtime operatives say they consider Mr. Bush the GOP's brightest hope to win back the White House.
Mr. Bush's advisers insist that he is not actively exploring a candidacy and will not make a decision until at least the end of this year. But over the past few weeks, Mr. Bush has traveled the country delivering policy speeches, campaigning for Republicans ahead of the fall midterm elections, honing messages on income inequality and foreign policy, and cultivating ties with wealthy benefactors -- all signals that he is considering a run.
Many if not most of Mitt Romney's major donors are reaching out to Mr. Bush and his confidants with phone calls, emails and invitations to meet, according to interviews with 30 senior Republicans. One bundler estimated that the "vast majority" of Mr. Romney's top 100 donors would back Mr. Bush in a competitive nomination fight.
"He's the most desired candidate out there," said another bundler, Brian Ballard, who sat on the national finance committees for Mr. Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
But Mr. Bush, 61, would have serious vulnerabilities as a candidate. Out of public office for seven years, he has struggled in some appearances and has had difficulty navigating the Republican Party's fault lines on immigration and other issues. A Bush candidacy also would test whether the nation still has a hangover from the George W. Bush administration.
On Thursday night, Mr. Bush was feted here at a VIP dinner held by Sheldon Adelson inside the billionaire casino magnate's airplane hangar. When one donor told Mr. Bush, "I hope you run for president in 2016," the crowd of about 60 guests burst into applause.
Mr. Bush also met privately with Mr. Adelson. One person with knowledge of the conversation said that the former governor was "very laid back and comfortable" and that they did not discuss the 2016 campaign.
Mr. Bush has been nurturing donor relationships for years. Earlier this month, he headlined a fundraiser for Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie at former ambassador Al Hoffman's home in North Palm Beach, Fla. Private-equity manager Lewis Eisenberg and former ambassador Ned Siegel were among the heavy hitters in attendance.
And in July, investor Scott Kapnick threw a book party for Mr. Bush at his Manhattan apartment. About 100 leading GOP donors showed up. Such events are a reminder that Mr. Bush, the son and brother of past presidents, could quickly activate a large national fundraising network if he chooses to run.
He would enter a wide-open contest for the GOP nomination with other advantages, as well: deep ties to his party's establishment and evangelical wings, and a reputation as a reform-minded policy wonk. Fluent in Spanish, Mr. Bush has credibility within the Hispanic community that could help broaden his coalition. He also has the gravitas many Republicans say is required to compete with former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrats' leading potential contender.
For now, Mr. Bush's 2016 deliberations are limited to casual emails and chats with Sally Bradshaw, his longtime political counselor in Florida, and strategist Mike Murphy. He also is in contact with fundraiser Jack Oliver.