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Jeb Bush speaks in Las Vegas, distances himself from family

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Steve Marcus

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush responds to a question during a question-and-answer session at the Mountain Shadows Community Center in Las Vegas, Monday, March 2, 2015. The stop was Bush’s first in a national tour aimed at key states on the presidential primary calendar.

Updated Monday, March 2, 2015 | 4:50 p.m.

Jeb Bush hasn't officially announced he's running for president in 2016, but the former Florida governor's appearance at a Las Vegas retirement community today had all the trappings of a campaign event.

"I've got to give you the legal caveat for a second — I'm seriously considering the possibility of running for president. I'm not a candidate," Bush told an audience member at the Sun City Summerlin community center.

But Bush's lack of candidate status didn't stop him from talking about what he'd do if elected or from attacking President Barack Obama's economic and foreign policies.

"This president has failed us on economic policy," Bush said, criticizing the 2.4 percent increase in gross domestic product in 2014 as not enough growth to help middle-class families.

Bush spent the first 15 minutes of his appearance introducing himself to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 300 people, mostly seniors, gathered at the age-restricted Sun City Summerlin community.

"A lot of people know my dad, they know my brother," he said, referring to former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. "As in everybody's family, we're all a little different. I have my own life experience, so I want to share that with you."

He touted his business experience in banking and real estate as something that sets him apart from most politicians in Washington, D.C., boasting, "I've had the chance to sign the front side of a paycheck."

While serving two terms as Florida's governor from 1999-2007, Bush said he applied conservative principles in a state that "is not much different" than Nevada in many ways, including its lack of personal income tax and even mix of Republican and Democratic voters.

"We cut taxes every year totaling $19 billion. We reduced the state workforce in government by 13,000 or 15,000, and we increased the number of jobs, not me but the private sector did, by 1.4 million net new jobs during those eight years," he said.

Attacking Obama's policies, Bush said he'd promote a simplified tax code with lower rates and fewer deductions as one of several "high-growth" strategies to help the economy.

On foreign policy, Bush said the United States "needs to play a much more active role in the world" than it has during Obama's tenure.

Bush's stop in Las Vegas was the first in a national tour of key states on the presidential primary calendar.

Nevada politico Sig Rogich, a former top aide for Bush’s father, President George H. W. Bush, helped organize the event.

Rogich said his “good friend” Jeb Bush is the “reasonable” candidate in a crowded Republican field.

“I think he understands that to get good things through for America, it takes consensus,” Rogich said.

Following his speech, Bush spent 25 minutes taking questions from the Las Vegas crowd on everything from his views on Common Core education standards to relations with Israel to immigration.

"We need to create a system where it's easier to come legally than illegally. Today in many cases it's not because our legal system is broken and we're not enforcing the borders," Bush said on immigration, adding that he'd support a path to legal status, but not citizenship for immigrants currently in the country illegally.

When asked how he'd differentiate himself from his father and brother as president, Bush said he's had different life experiences and has new ideas for how to move the country forward.

"The circumstances in 2016 are dramatically different than they were in 1988 ... so you have to go earn it," Bush said. "It's the power of those ideas that hopefully will distinguish me from my family."

Following up, Bush asked his questioner, "Do you have brothers and sisters? Are you exactly the same?"

Bush didn't touch on any Nevada-specific issues like Yucca Mountain or gaming, which he has generally opposed over his political career. In a 2008 radio ad opposing a push to expand slot machine gaming in Miami, Bush said, "Casino operators will make millions exploiting the poorest amongst us."

Bush's visit is the latest in a string of appearances in Las Vegas of potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio signed copies of his book at a Las Vegas Barnes & Noble last month, while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul stopped at the Peppermill restaurant in January in a swing that also took him to Reno.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a potential presidential candidate on the Democratic side, visited Nevada in October.

The high-profile visits from presidential hopefuls will only increase as the campaign season heats up.

Nevada’s Democratic and Republican caucuses will be among the first four presidential contests in the nation in 2016. Playing well here could help a presidential candidate pull out of a crowded field and gain momentum.

Las Vegas resident Beverly Gonzalez, who asked Bush about his views on Common Core standards, said she admired his knowledge of the issues and direct answers to questions.

"I voted for his father and brother," said Gonzalez, who said Jeb Bush stands out as her preferred candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. "I think he's got the knowledge, wisdom and character that we need."

Sun reporter Amber Phillips contributed to this report.

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