Sending a strong signal that he thinks the Republican primary has gone on long enough, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday announced he is endorsing Mitt Romney.
The endorsement comes after Bush stayed publicly neutral through the Florida primary battle between Romney and Newt Gingrich in January. He has been reluctant to get involved in high-profile Republican primaries since leaving office in 2006.
In a statement issued Wednesday morning through a spokeswoman for his education-oriented advocacy group, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, Bush indicated he thinks the primary battle is over after Romney’s strong win in Illinois on Tuesday.
"Congratulations to Governor Mitt Romney on his win last night and to all the candidates for a hard fought, thoughtful debate and primary season," he said. "Primary elections have been held in thirty-four states, and now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney."
He said it’s time for Republicans to "take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall."
"We need a leader who understands the economy, recognizes more government regulation is not the answer, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism and works to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed."
While staying neutral during the Florida campaign, Bush had hinted he preferred Romney. As the campaign became hostile and personal, Bush issued a public rebuke to both candidates, but he issued it in response to an interviewer’s question about Gingrich.
Bush has also suggested he fears the continuing battle may be alienating voters.
"I used to be a conservative and I watch these debates and I'm wondering," he said answering audience questions after a speech in Dallas last month.
"I don't think I've changed, but it's a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people's fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective."
There was no response from Bush on Wednesday to questions about whether he is worried about the state of the primary race, or how active he intends to be in Romney’s campaign.
A prolific fundraiser with a national reputation, Bush could draw money and attention to Romney on the campaign trail.
There was also no answer to questions about whether this changes Bush’s repeated statements that he won’t run for office in 2012. Some political experts speculated the move could indicate Bush would be a possible running mate for Romney.
Bush, possibly the state’s most influential Republican, has often declined to exert that influence in primaries.
In 2010, he stayed neutral in the Senate primary between then-Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio until Crist left the party to run as an independent – although Bush had dropped strong hints that he preferred Rubio.
In 2008, he stayed neutral through the Florida presidential primary in January, in which John McCain defeated Romney and Rudy Giuliani, although several of Bush’s top political strategists lined up with Romney. Bush endorsed McCain only after Romney dropped out after the primary.
In 2006, he stayed neutral in the primary battle between Crist and Tom Gallagher to succeed Bush as governor.
Bush doesn’t always stay neutral -- in 2010, when polls showed Rick Scott moving ahead of Bill McCollum for the GOP nomination for governor, Bush jumped in on McCollum’s side.
Scott, a tea party movement hero funding his own campaign, was then viewed as an opponent by much of the GOP establishment, who feared his corporate history of Medicare fraud would cause him to lose to Democrat Alex Sink.
The Romney camp was jubilant over the Bush endorsement.
"This is a key moment in the presidential contest," a campaign news release quoted Romney as saying. "Jeb’s counsel and support will be critical in the coming months in my effort to defeat Barack Obama and turn around our country."
But Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond pooh-poohed it as "one more establishment Republican lines up with Romney. No news here."
Democrats reacted more sharply.
"After months of dragging his feet on supporting weak front-runner Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush today held his nose and gave Romney an unenthusiastic nod – much like the GOP electorate across the country," said Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan.
How much the endorsement will affect the race is debatable, political experts said.
"For the so-called establishment in the Republican Party, it probably has some weight … somebody else important believes Romney is a good candidate," Florida State University political scientist Robert Crew.
"But I’m always leery about what endorsements mean for the average voter. Political science doesn’t find much evidence of an influence" – with some exceptions, including Oprah Winfrey’s 2008 endorsement of President Barack Obama, he said.
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and veteran political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said the value depends on what Bush delivers along with the endorsement.
"If he’ll be a surrogate and go out and campaign for him, if it enables him to go out and raise $5 million, that makes a difference," he said.
But Madonna also said the endorsement won’t deter Romney’s main competitor, Rick Santorum.
"This plays into the Santorum narrative that it’s the big-spending Republicans that are part of the problem," he said. "For Santorum and his base of voters, it won’t do much."