POLITICS

Thrust into limelight at GOP debate, Jeb Bush's wife, Columba, is quiet but potent partner

Columba Bush and her son Jeb Bush, Jr. on March 18, 2015 in Sweetwater, Florida.

Columba Bush and her son Jeb Bush, Jr. on March 18, 2015 in Sweetwater, Florida.  (2015 Getty Images)

Columba Bush is so rarely seen in public that most wouldn’t know her if they passed her on the street.

While the woman who could someday be the First Lady if her husband, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, succeeds in his bid to become president, is, in the words of her son Jeb Jr., "not crazy" about being in the spotlight, she is nevertheless a force in the Bush home – and outside of it, those close to her say.

“There’s a quiet strength about Columba,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, who is working for the Bush campaign, and served as the master of ceremonies at his campaign launch in Miami in June.

“She’s not handled,” Aguirre said, referring to aides who closely manage the moves of candidates and their close relatives during campaigns. “When she’s doing an interview: when she’s done, she’s done.”

Watching her family get beat up in the media is tough. For good reason, she’s not crazy about [being in the spotlight].

- Jeb Bush Jr., speaking about his mother Columba Bush

But Columba has found herself a target in this presidential election, as real estate mogul and current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has derided her country of birth, Mexico, Mexican immigrants and suggested that her husband's views on immigration are "soft" in part because of his wife's heritage.

On Wednesday night, in the second GOP debate, she again was thrust into the spotlight she loathes when her husband called on Trump to apologize for attacking her background.

Trump flatly refused, saying that his comments about Columba influencing this stance on immigration were simply the truth.

Columba later tweeted, "I came to America because I love this country. @realDonaldTrump is wrong."

It’s been said that Jeb Bush decided to enter the presidential race only after getting the unwavering blessing of his wife, who had a mixed experience as Florida’s First Lady – principally having to deal with the drug addiction of their daughter, Noelle, in the sometimes harsh glare of the public spotlight.

So Columba, 62, made her husband, who also is 62, promise that he’d carve out time every week for the family while running for president, according to published reports that cited friends.

And indeed, nearly every Sunday, the family gets together in their South Florida home to have dinner and catch up with one another.

“We get together every Sunday and eat, do ‘Sunday Funday’ barbeques,” said Jeb Bush Jr. over coffee at a Coral Gables restaurant.

“My mom keeps my dad really grounded,” he said. “She’s a very spiritual, sound person who knows where she stands. She reminds us of what’s important.”

And that is part of a new video put out by Jeb Bush's campaign that commemorates Hispanic Heritage Month.

In the minute-long clip, Columba says, “I have lived more than half my life here. So, you know, I agree that we all have the same interests, the same feelings. We go to church every Sunday. We have celebrations with the family. We keep our traditions. You know, but at the end it’s just that, you know, faith, friends and family.”

An integral part of what’s important to Columba is her Mexican heritage and keeping her ancestral culture strong within the home.

Even today, when her kids are adults and tower over the 5-foot-tall mother (her husband Jeb is 6' 3"), she presses the language and customs.

“My mom still only speaks Spanish to me,” said Jeb Bush Jr. with obvious fondness for his mother. “Unfortunately, I’ve made the mistake of responding in English all the time.”

And so, he said, his Spanish skills are, at best, “intermediary.”

“I understand it fluently,” he said. “I speak pretty good, but I need to get better. Now I see the value of it, not just for business, but for my kids.”

Jeb Bush Sr. has honored his wife’s heritage and native language on the campaign trail, speaking it flawlessly in private and in public.

Jeb met Columba when he was just 17 and an exchange student in Mexico; she was 16 and her parents were already divorced.

The former governor speaks glowingly of their first encounter, saying he fell in love instantly despite their differences. He even describes this seminal moment on his campaign website.

He came from a political family that attended Ivy League schools. Her father’s world was quite different – he grew up in a rural Mexican village, working as a waiter and, later, fruit picker in the United States.

Columba helped focus Jeb, even back then. After he met her, his grades improved enough to land him on the honor roll, and he got a degree in Latin American studies at the University of Texas, earning a membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

In her memoir, Jeb’s mother, Barbara, wrote, “I called to say how thrilled we were, and he told me he had done it for Columba because he wanted to prove he was serious. She thought he was a rich man’s son and a playboy.”

Jeb Bush and his family have lived in Venezuela, and of course, in South Florida, one of the most Latino areas of the United States.

In his Hispanic Heritage video, Bush says in Spanish, “For me, Hispanic culture is very important and positive.”

“Hispanics contribute every day more to our culture [and] are an integral part of the American dream.”

While Columba Bush may not have “the political DNA that Jeb has,” as Aguirre puts it, she is interested in public policy and long has devoted herself to efforts to help those struggling with drug addiction and domestic violence.

Both are issues that have touched her personally – her daughter, Noelle, and reports say that her father physically abused her mother when she was growing up.

Columba has scheduled a series of small meetings in various states to discuss such issues and to gather information on what needs to be done to improve programs for domestic violence and drug addiction, those close to her say.

“She’s not crazy about the political process, the media, the unfair shots people take,” her son Jeb Jr. said. “But she likes helping people, getting involved with domestic violence issues, drug abuse prevention.”

“She’s not looking to get in front of the camera,” he added. “She’s not interested in getting Facebook likes. She meets people, helps raise funds for organizations and helps people navigate these issues.”

Her son understands his mother’s leeriness of being in the public eye.

“Watching her family get beat up in the media is tough,” he said. “For good reason, she’s not crazy about it. She’d rather get one-on-one with people, understand their issues and who they are. She likes roundtables – there’ll be 20 people and everyone gets to be engaged.”

Former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, a friend of Columba and the rest of the Bush family, draws parallels between her and George W. Bush’s wife, Laura.

“Laura Bush was the same, she didn’t look for the spotlight,” Marin said. “She was a librarian from Texas. She was not going to be that First Lady who takes on the world.”

When George W. first told Laura that he wanted to run for public office, she reportedly said it was okay with her only if she never had to make a public speech.

“Columba wants to do the right thing, to support her husband, even if [being in the public eye] is not what she signed up to do," Marin said. "And that's what she would do if she's First Lady, be in the support role."

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.