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Karl Rove praises GOP field — but doesn’t back Jeb Bush

Karl Rove, at the 2012 GOP convention.
Karl Rove, at the 2012 GOP convention.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

Karl Rove isn't ready to back his old boss's little brother just yet.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Thursday, the former Bush White House aide and political power broker wrote that the burgeoning GOP field "could be among the strongest" in memory — in contrast to 2012's field, which he says was weak. Rove writes that he anticipates "the most volatile, unpredictable Republican contest most Americans have ever seen."

Of course, Rove could hardly be expected to publicly trash his own party's prospects so early. And this year's field is universally acknowledged to be at least somewhat stronger than 2012's — when several potential prospects decided against running, Rick Perry quickly flamed out, and Romney's key rivals ended up being Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

Still, considering Rove's long association with the Bush family — he worked for George HW Bush in the '70s, and advised George W Bush in his campaigns for governor and president — the big question is whether he's pulling for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who's been moving closer to a run (though he hasn't yet technically announced one). There's no sign of this here, as Rove praises the strength of the field in general, rather than singling out any one candidate.

What we can assume is that Rove isn't on board with a repeat Romney bid. Though American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two outside money groups Rove co-founded and advises, spent over $100 million in the general election to try to defeat Obama, Rove was never thrilled with Romney as a candidate, and explored several alternatives in 2011.

Early that year, Rove initially wanted Jeb Bush to enter the race, according to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's book Double Down: Game Change 2012. Then in August, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was considering a late entrance to the contest, Rove met with him and argued that he could beat Romney. According to Halperin and Heilemann, Rove told Christie, "The guy we've got in there now is clearly not up to it. And you'd be a hell of a lot better than him."

But if Rove is pulling for Jeb Bush this year, there are reasons he might want to keep it quiet. An overt affiliation between the two could actually hurt the candidate — by connecting him further to his brother's unpopular administration, since Rove is one of its most controversial figures. For the general election, Jeb will have to demonstrate that he wouldn't be just reviving the Bush years.

Plus, Rove himself might have concerns about Jeb's electability. In an earlier op-ed, Rove praised Jeb as "a big thinker and effective communicator with a giant fundraising network." But he asked, "Can another Bush win?"