By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Jeb Bush will visit three U.S. allies, Germany, Poland and Estonia, in early June to get a first-hand view of European economic and security challenges as he explores a run for his party's U.S. presidential nomination in 2016, a Bush aide said on Monday.
Foreign policy has been growing in importance in the battle to determine President Barack Obama's successor, with Republicans questioning Obama's handling of the threat from Islamic State and Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
Bush’s visit gives him a chance to lay out his differences with Obama, a Democrat, particularly when it comes to NATO, with alliance members Poland and Estonia both watching events in Ukraine with alarm. Obama is legally barred from seeking a third term in the November 2016 election.
Bush told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt on March 30 that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a "ruthless pragmatist" and the United States should let Moscow know of U.S. determination to protect the alliance and its members.
In Germany, the former Florida governor will address the governing Christian Democratic Union economic conference, said the aide, who requested anonymity. In Poland and Estonia, Bush will meet government and business leaders as well as leaders of civic and non-governmental organizations.
Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said that in all three countries Bush will discuss pro-growth policies, innovation and technologies to address the changing global economic environment and ways to foster prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic.
"He will also be listening to their perspectives on growing security challenges in the region," she said.
POSSIBLE ANNOUNCEMENT IN JUNE?
A Bush aide said the 62-year-old Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush, has yet to decide whether to run. Other sources close to Bush's camp have said his team has discussed the possibility of an announcement in June, after the trip.
His trip abroad comes with some risks. Two rivals, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, traveled to Europe in recent months and both had encountered stumbles on the foreign stage.
Bush is a front-runner for the Republican nomination should he decide to run, but has been unable to break loose of a host of rivals in national polls of Republicans. A CNN/ORC opinion poll released on Monday had him leading the pack with 17 percent support, with Walker in second place at 12 percent.
Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who announced a run for the White House a week ago, has made foreign policy a hallmark of his candidacy based on his being a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Bush has offered a hawkish view of Obama's foreign policy. He has questioned concessions Obama might make to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, criticized his diplomatic opening to Cuba, and called Obama "feckless" for not providing defensive equipment sought by Ukraine.
A frequent traveler abroad, Bush has been on 89 foreign trips to 29 countries and six continents since he left the governor's office in Florida in 2007.
His last trip to Germany was to Frankfurt in 2011. This will be his first trip to Poland and Estonia, the Bush team said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)