HOUSTON (AP) — The man at the microphone spoke in a language most Republican presidential primary voters do not understand.
"You are part of the new wave of hope for this country," Jeb Bush said in fluent Spanish to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference this week. Switching to English, he said the U.S. needs immigrants for the country "to become young and dynamic again."
It doesn't seem to matter that Hispanic voters typically do not have much say in Republican primaries. The former Florida governor's play to Hispanic values and policy goals has begun to shape his young political operation. Well before the first votes are cast for the Republican nomination — and even before he declares his candidacy — Bush is strengthening ties with Hispanic voters who will be important in the head-to-head contest for the presidency in 2016.
At his side throughout this week's appearances in Puerto Rico and Texas was Raul Henriques, a fresh-faced "body man" recently hired because Bush wanted a Spanish speaker to travel with him regularly. As well, Emily Benavides stood at the back of the hotel ballroom during Bush's Houston address Wednesday, now on board to advise him on Hispanic media. And Bush's Mexican-born wife, Columba, is expected to start doing more in the rising campaign, also with Hispanic media.
Bush primarily speaks Spanish with his wife. He has lived in Puerto Rico and Venezuela; he governed a state with a large Hispanic population — and he regularly cooks Latin cuisine at home.
"You're not going to find a more Latinized anglo than Jeb Bush," says Jorge Arrizurieta, a Miami-based Cuban-American who worked closely with the Bush family for decades. "There really hasn't been a candidate ever in our country that has these attributes."
It's unclear whether those attributes will help or hurt Bush in the Republican primaries, where a vocal conservative minority holds outsized influence. Appealing to such voters, Mitt Romney in 2012 suggested that immigrants in the U.S. illegally should "self-deport." The remark may have helped him win the GOP nomination, but it probably hurt him in the general election.
Not since the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush, Jeb's older brother, has a Republican presidential candidate earned as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Romney got a dismal 27 percent in the 2012 contest against President Barack Obama.
Bush does not have a monopoly on Hispanic interest in the GOP race. Cuban-American Marco Rubio of Florida, also fluent in Spanish, is in the hunt. So, too, is Cuban-American Ted Cruz of Texas, who has only limited abilities in Spanish. Others, without cultural connections, may well appeal to Hispanics, too.
Yet Bush has been the most aggressive Republican proponent of an immigration policy that would allow some 11 million people in the country illegally to stay under certain conditions. Rubio authored a Senate bill with such a provision, but he backed off after a conservative backlash. Cruz and most others in the Republican field oppose the policy they call "amnesty."
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said Republicans must be more willing to "reach out and touch that brown hand." He praised Bush's approach, saying he connects with the Latino community "politically, socially and intellectually."
"Jeb Bush has the possibility of engaging the Latino voter in the way George Walker Bush did in 2004, or even more," Rodriguez said. His organization, which Jeb Bush addressed in Houston, is socially conservative but closer to Democrats on immigration policy.
Bush, a Latin American studies major in college, met his wife while studying in Mexico. They spent two years in Venezuela early in his business career before Bush moved to Puerto Rico for six months to run his father's 1980 primary campaign. The couple settled in Miami.
"Hispanic engagement is going to be one of his top priorities," said Benavides, who served as Romney's Hispanic press secretary. "It has been for decades now." She said it's "part of who he is."
On his recent trip, Bush answered questions in the language they were posed in and switched seamlessly between English and Spanish, drawing thunderous applause.
"Imaginate!" — Imagine that! — he quipped at times during his Houston speech. In Puerto Rico, he embraced supporters as they took selfies, and offered a modest "Gracias por venir" — thank you for coming — which drew wide smiles.
"I love it," said Maria Elena Cruz, a 59-year-old government worker from Toa Baja. "He speaks Spanish just like us."
Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.