MIAMI – In a setting that emphasized the Spanish language and Latino culture, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced that he is running for president.
Bush, the son of one U.S. president and brother of another, launched his 2016 campaign with a rally and speech at Miami Dade College, whose student body is more than 70 percent Latino.
Speaking in English, and adding some comments in flawless Spanish, Bush vowed make the most vulnerable in U.S. society – the disabled, minorities and women – a priority if he gets to the White House.
He called Florida a fitting place to launch his campaign because “this great and diverse state … looks so much like America,” he said.
The crowd, indeed, was diverse, and the event featured a performance by the daughters of Cuban-American singing icon Willy Chirino.
“We will take command of our future once again in this country,” said Bush, whose campaign logo is “Jeb! 2016.”
“We will lift our sights again, make opportunity common again, get events in the world moving our way again,” said Bush, whose announcement was preceded by a speech by his son, George P. Bush, who is the land commissioner of Texas. His mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, was in the audience.
“We will take Washington – the static capital of this dynamic country – out of the business of causing problems," Bush said.
Bush stuck to his strategy of speaking highly of his family while also depicting himself as someone who is different from his relatives, who has his own views and lifestyle.
“Long before the world knew my parents' names, I knew I was blessed to be their son,” said Bush. “And they didn’t mind at all that I found my own path. It led from Texas to Miami by way of Mexico."
He spoke about how he spent time in Mexico as a youth and met his wife, Columba.
“In 1971, 8 years before then-candidate Ronald Reagan said that we should stop thinking of our neighbors as foreigners, I was ahead of my time in cross-border outreach.”
Bush’s original prepared statements said nothing about immigration, but he deviated from the script to address immigration activist-hecklers at the rally and said: "The next president of the United States will pass meaningful immigration reform so that will be solved, not by executive order."
He denounced President Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, a message that got cheers in a crowd that included apparently many Cuban-Americans.
“Ninety miles to our south, there is talk of a state visit by our outgoing president,” he said. ““But we don't need a glorified tourist to go to Havana in support of a failed Cuba. We need an American president to go to Havana in solidarity with a free Cuban people, and I am ready to be that president.”
Helen Aguirre Ferrer, a Miami radio host and Latina journalist, kicked off the festivities by getting the crowd of more than 1,000 Jeb Bush supporters to join in a chant.
Ferrer: "Who are you here to see?"
The crowd: "Jeb!"
Ferrer: "I can't hear you!"
The crowd: "Jeb!"
Singer Chirino's three daughters sang two Spanish ballads and a Bee Gees tune and then their father joined them on stage.
Chirino, his children and his wife sang the national anthem. Chirino, dressed in a white jacket and black trousers, strummed a guitar as their voices rang softly around the auditorium.
The second speaker, Berthy De La Rosa-Aponte, a Colombian-American advocate for the disabled, sang Bush’s praises in English and Spanish. She said he had acted with compassion when she introduced him to her daughter, Lucy, who is autistic. It spurred Bush, Aponte said, to make changes as governor that would better serve the disabled.
George P. Bush spoke of how his father had stumped for him when he was running for office in Texas, and said now it was his turn to support his father.
“He taught me the importance of family,” he said.
The son noted that in his home, Spanish was stressed as a language to speak and value.
“No solo hablamos espanol (We don’t just speak Spanish)” he said, “si no sabemos la importancia de la comunidad hispana. Tu vales muchisimo (We also know the value of the Latino community. You matter a great deal.)”
Bush spoke a few words in Spanish, showing off his fluency in the language. Bush lived in Mexico and Venezuela.
“In any language, my message will be an optimistic one because I am certain that we can make the decades just ahead in America the greatest time ever to be alive in this world,” Jeb Bush said.
Bush’s campaign has said that he will go to communities that Republicans, sometimes to their detriment, have not gone to, including Latino neighborhoods.
With his announcement, Bush took a step many had expected him to take this year. Indeed, he had all but declared his intentions for at least the last six months. He joins 10 other Republicans already in the race for the party's nomination.
“It’s no surprise, his candidacy has been weeks and months – and I would say years – in the making,” said Fernand R. Amandi, is the managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi, a Florida-based polling and strategy firm. “This is the day Jeb has been preparing for since he was a child.”
With his candidacy, Bush adds several significant dynamics to the 2016 presidential race.
A race that counts as its leading contender – on the Democratic side – Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, now also has the brother of a U.S. president running as a strong contender on the Republican side.
Both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have their political bona fides – he as governor of Florida, she as a U.S. senator and Secretary of State.
Bush’s entry into the race also puts into sharp relief the rivalry between him and his one-time mentee and friend, Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow Floridian and Republican who entered the 2016 race to the shock of many political experts who were sure the junior lawmaker, 44, would defer to Bush, who is 62.
Rubio pre-empted Bush’s announcement hours earlier on Monday by releasing a short statement that said: "In politics, people throw around the word 'friend' so much it often has little real meaning. This is not one of those times. When I call Jeb Bush my friend, I mean he is someone I like, care for and respect.”
“He and I have worked closely together for many years, on issues big and small. He is a passionate advocate for what he believes, and I welcome him to the race."
The two, nonetheless, are vying for the same big prize, and other prizes along the way that can help lead them to the Oval Office.
Both have advantages in making direct appeals to the increasingly important Latino electorate.
Both Rubio and Bush can speak to them in Spanish directly, and both have a deep understanding of the bicultural Latino experience.
Among the high profile politicians attending the event at the basketball gym of the Miami Dade College Kendall campus were Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, former U.S. senator Mel Martinez, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis G. Fortuño.
Bush has won the endorsement of most of Florida's Republican congressional delegation, including Rubio's fellow Cuban-Americans – Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.
"It's a stinging rebuke for Marco Rubio," Amandi said, "But Jeb got all those people elected."
Rubio and Bush have made veiled unflattering references to each other.
Rubio has said senators make better presidents than governors, given their foreign policy experience. Bush has said governors make better presidents because of their experience managing a government body.
When he launched his presidential campaign, Rubio sought to distinguish himself from candidates who represent the old, status quo way of politics – a reference, many thought, to both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.
Bush is depicting himself as a Beltway outsider. Those who are in Washington D.C. have been part of the problem, he suggested in a criticism that many observers thought was directed at Rubio.
"It's going to be the Battle Royale," said Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, referring to Bush and Rubio. "The Florida GOP primary will be the defining election for the two of them."
Bush has likely raised a record breaking amount of money to support his candidacy and conceived of a new approach on how to structure his campaign, both aimed at allowing him to make a deep run into the GOP primaries.
But on other measures, early public opinion polls among them, he has yet to break out. While unquestionably one of the top-tier candidates in the GOP race, he is also only one of several in a capable Republican field that does not have a true front-runner.
In the past six months, Bush has made clear he will remain committed to his core beliefs in the campaign to come — even if his positions on immigration and education standards are deeply unpopular among the conservative base of the party that plays an outsized role in the GOP primaries.
Rubio also has alienated some conservatives in his base with his key role in a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013, but which many conservatives criticized as an amnesty plan.
"I'm not going to change who I am," Bush said as he wrapped up a week-long European trip this weekend. "I respect people who may not agree with me, but I'm not going to change my views because today someone has a view that's different."
After his Monday announcement, dozens of Jeb Bush's supporters stayed for free arroz con pollo and another performance by the Chirino sisters.
Some of them explained why Bush is their candidate.
Marco Antonio Real, a Miami Republican born in Nicaragua, said he has supported Bush since he first ran for governor. He said there is no comparison between Rubio and the ex-governor.
"Rubio has extraordinary eloquence," Real said. "But he doesn't have the experience or the vision of Jeb Bush."
Mark Vila, a Haitian-American financial consultant, also said he picked Bush over Rubio because of experience.
"I've supported Bush for decades because I have seen what he's done to help black businesses," Vila said.
Vila added, however, that having Bush and Rubio as presidential candidates is good for the Republican Party.
"Florida is lucky to have to good candidates from the same state," Vila said. "I can't wait to see the debates between these two gentlemen."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.