For political junkies reading the 2016 tea leaves, Jeb Bush offers this newly emptied cup: "I'm thinking about running for president."
That's the report from an attendee of Wednesday's closed-door Catholic Charities fundraiser in New York to Fox News, who said this was in response to a question about the former Florida governor's immediate plans.
No, this isn't terribly different from things he's said in recent months: "I'm going to think about it later," and "There's a time to make a decision. You shouldn't make it too early; you shouldn't make it too late." But from the point of view of tone and nuance, Wednesday's remarks are clearly the most direct — the first-person pronoun coupled with the present participle verb. No subjunctive "would" — or any other qualifier.
For more than a year, Bush and his team did their utmost to tamp down talk about 2016. (This continues, to a lesser extent, even now. Here is Bush's closest confidante, former chief of staff Sally Bradshaw, in a tweet yesterday: "Breaking: @JebBush also thinking about not running for President.")
There are plenty of good reasons for this. The vast majority of actual voters, even those in early primary states, are not paying much attention to the 2016 presidential contest. They don't much care who is or is not running, at least not yet.
But for lesser-known hopefuls, every single day before the Iowa caucuses is an opportunity to improve name ID and line up potential donors. They have to start the rubber chicken circuit — yesterday, if not sooner.
Bush is in a different situation. As the brother of the last Republican president and the son of the one before that, he already has plenty of name ID. So for him, every single day between now and the Iowa caucuses is an opportunity for all those who might oppose him to dig up dirt and figure out how to disseminate it. The day he's officially in the race is the day the bull's-eye is officially pinned to his back.
Hence the balancing act. A lot of the party's biggest donors and bundlers are waiting for him to say the word. If he plays coy too long, they'll get antsy and start considering their options. So perhaps that's the best way of looking at Wednesday's comment — a little assurance for those writing the checks to hold fast.
In any event, now that he's gone this far, don't look for anything more definitive from Bush regarding his plans in the coming months. In fact, if history is a guide, Bush will hold his decision close to the vest until he's ready to jump in at full throttle.
In late October 1992, Bush was asked directly at an Orlando, Fla., political gathering if he was going to run for governor in 1994. Bush held up his plastic beer cup for reporters and laughed: "Do you think I'd be doing this if I was running?"
Four months later, Bush told CNN: "I have every intention of doing it."
S.V. Dáte edits congressional and campaign finance coverage for NPR's Washington Desk.