COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As he signals strong interest in a 2016 presidential campaign, Republican Jeb Bush on Monday encouraged college graduates to "shake things up" and embrace change during a commencement address at South Carolina's largest university.
The former Florida governor's appearance, weeks before a self-imposed deadline to decide his political future, marked his second visit in three months to the state that hosts the presidential primary season's first contest in the South. Bush avoided any direct political references in his 10-minute speech to the University of South Carolina's winter commencement, but his mere presence in the state fueled new speculation about his 2016 intentions.
"Do not settle for artificial limits on you or this nation," Bush told an estimated 2,750 college graduates and 14,000 friends and family gathered in South Carolina's capital city. "We can be greater than we are."
In a TV interview shown the day before, Bush dropped more hints that he's moving toward a presidential run.
Bush said he "would be a good president," disclosed that he was writing an e-book about his time as governor that would come out in the spring, and promised to release about 250,000 emails from his time in office.
The son of one president and brother of another, Bush has the power to transform the 2016 contest like no other Republican.
He can tap into his family's vast political network, and his campaign would attract strong support from the same donor pool that other establishment-minded Republicans — New Jersey Chris Christie among them — need to fuel their own prospective campaigns. A Bush candidacy would also impact Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who came up through Florida politics as a strong Bush supporter and has been considering his own presidential run.
Bush did not meet political operatives while in South Carolina, aides report, but news of his appearance buzzed through the state's political class.
"There's a lot of affection for the Bush family in South Carolina," said Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina Republican operative who advised George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Like others, Tompkins noted that Jeb Bush's White House ambitions appear to be growing.
"It certainly appears more serious than it was two or three weeks ago," Tompkins said. "If you read the tea leaves, the necessary steps are being taken to prepare for a potential candidacy."
Bush, who was given an honorary doctorate degree in public service, becomes the fourth member of his family to be so recognized at the university. His father, brother and mother were similarly honored over the years.
Joking about his family's influence during the speech, Bush said college graduates don't need to follow their parents' examples in life to find success.
"You don't have to follow the pattern," he said. "In fact, life is a lot better if you find your own reasons to do your own things."
His supporters remain unclear about his intentions.
He spent much of the recent midterm campaign out of the public eye. The South Carolina address, however, was his fourth high-profile speech in recent weeks. In one of them, an appearance before corporate executives in Washington, he called for his party to embrace an immigration overhaul and focus on governing.
At the same time Bush has been expanding his private equity business, and advisers insist he's not courting a political staff in Iowa and New Hampshire, even as other would-be candidates assemble 2016 campaign teams in the early voting states.