Bush denies he flipped at all.
"He has not changed his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, despite what the press is reporting," said spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof. "He has said he can support a system that provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, as long as those who have been waiting patiently to enter the country legally receive priority."
The book, she said, "provides a set of recommendations based on what is needed and what can generate bipartisan support," and "does not prohibit individuals here illegally from ever earning citizenship." Backers found Bush's vacillation unusual. He's known for willingness to take controversial stands and refusal to bend in the face of criticism.
"He's never been one who's afraid to take a position if he believes he can intellectually defend it, and he won't be scared off it," said Tampa-based GOP political strategist Fred Piccolo.
Piccolo cited Bush's "One Florida" plan that ended affirmative action in university admissions, enacted despite opposition from civil rights advocates.
Following the news explosion over his apparent flip, Bush reassured supporters by email.
None would disclose what he said, but their comments probably echo his thoughts -- and several said the climate within the GOP on immigration changed so quickly Bush was caught off guard.
That climate change clearly stemmed from Republican panic over President Barack Obama's decisive win among Hispanics in November -- which probably occurred after Bush and Bolick wrote the book.
"I think it was a matter of timing," said Miami political strategist Ana Navarro. Bush wrote the book "last year, in the wake of the Republican presidential primary, which was a freak show on who could be toughest on immigration," and added he was "trying to lay out some proposals that were not necessarily his wish list, but would bring Republicans to the table."
"But by the time the book got published, the debate had moved more forward than what he lays out," largely because of the Gang of 8, she said.
Unlike legal resident aliens, citizens can vote, run for public office, serve on juries and get security clearances.
Citizens also get preference over legal residents on some immigration matters including immunity to deportation and ability to sponsor family members for admission.
The difference "doesn't affect people in their daily lives that much," but it's still important, said Florida International University political scientist Dario Moreno, who specializes in Hispanic issues.
"The guiding principle of our law has always been that once you make the U.S. your home, you have the chance to become a citizen," he said. Allowing legal status, but not a path to citizenship, would create a new class of American residents -- "someone who's here legally but not eligible for citizenship." University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto, who runs the respected Latino Decisions poll, said Hispanic-American voters, not just immigrants, care about the distinction.
In a November survey, he said, 60 percent of Latino voters said they knew an undocumented immigrant, in many cases a family member.
"There's a sense that reforms without a path to citizenship would create a permanent, legal 2nd-class status," Barreto said. "There's real fear and opposition to that."
In a June poll comparing two reform plans for illegal immigrant youths brought here involuntarily by their parents, Latino voters preferred 10-1 a plan with a path to citizenship by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., over one leading only to legal residence, by Sen. Rubio.
Bush backers denied the book and tour were intended as a prelude to a presidential campaign.
"This is not a typical political book -- it's not a bio, not about his success as governor, not about his political life," and not about Bush's signature issue, education, noted adviser Sally Bradshaw.
But she acknowledged that "everything he does is viewed thru a political lens," and Bush backers also knew the tour signaled he's interested in being back on the public stage.
"It's pretty clear this is the strongest signal to date that he's considering a run," said another long-time adviser, Cory Tilley, noting that Bush didn't dismiss questions about 2016 during his interviews.
"A lot of people in Florida and around the country have been waiting for that signal."
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