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The Pulse: Jeb Bush, remember the Montco voter

Greetings from Montgomery County, one of the few remaining swing areas in American presidential politics.

Memo to: Jeb Bush

From: MAS

Re: 2016

Greetings from Montgomery County, one of the few remaining swing areas in American presidential politics.

Voters here split their tickets. We even have a Cracker Barrel and Whole Foods in the same community! Don't laugh. They don't often build in the same area. In a 2014 post, David Wasserman at the FiveThirtyEight blog noted that in 1992, Bill Clinton won 61 percent of counties that now have a Whole Foods and 40 percent of counties that now have a Cracker Barrel - a 21 percent gap. By 2012, when President Obama won 77 percent of all counties with a Whole Foods and just 29 percent of all counties with a Cracker Barrel, that margin had doubled to 48 percent. Close that gap and they'll be calling you Bush 45.

But you won't get there by making unforced errors as you did last week. When commenting on the flap over Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, you chose to speak to Iowa caucus voters, not the type who live in Montco.

"I think Gov. Pence has done the right thing," you said. "Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to be able to be people of conscience. I think once the facts are established, people aren't going to see this as discriminatory at all."

That's not going to play in suburbia, where there has been a sea change in attitudes toward gays and lesbians since Clinton signed the federal law in 1993. And on the merits, you were wrong. Indiana's law was an attempt to provide ammunition to a business that had denied service to customers because of their sexuality, and it went beyond what Clinton signed into law. Indiana initially gave for-profit businesses a freedom of religion and created a litigation defense for them against civil suits.

As you well know, the challenge of your campaign is to win the nomination in a way that doesn't wound you for a general. That won't be easy. In 2012, you correctly observed that both Ronald Reagan and your father would have a hard time finding common ground with this incarnation of the GOP. And again, when you first dipped your toe in the water in 2014, you said that for a Republican presidential candidate to win in 2016, he'd need to be prepared to "lose the primary to win the general."

But that's not the logic you followed when you rushed to join the Indiana fray. Mike Pence may not have answered George Stephanopoulos' six requests for a yes or no answer on ABC's This Week last Sunday, but he sure did make clear that there would be changes to the ill-conceived law before the Final Four tipped off. Had you waited, you could have embraced the amended law, which is much more acceptable to the people you need to reach to be president.

Look, Bush 41 was the last Republican to win Pennsylvania in a presidential election. We really aren't the purple state we're made out to be by the pundit class every four years - we've been consistently blue every four years since 1988. Still, you can win here. In fact, you probably have the best shot of any Republican against Hillary. But as Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College told me last week, "The path to winning Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes runs through the swing counties in the state - most notably in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs. It's impossible to carry the state without a strong showing in them."

To be competitive here, you need to emulate 41, not 43. There is some truth to the saying credited to James Carville that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. Guaranteed, you will win our version of Alabama. Equally certain, you will be trounced in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Whether you win the state will depend on what happens in suburbia and the Lehigh Valley.

Might I suggest that, as the campaign unfolds, you employ a Montgomery County litmus test? Ask yourself whether your positions will play in this community. Win a general here, you win everything, but go too far placating the base in primary season, and you may as well not run. In 2004, 43 lost Montco to John Kerry, 44 percent to 55.6 percent, and lost the state. In 2008, 60 percent of Montgomery County voters went for Obama, and he won Pennsylvania. He held the state four years later, taking 56.6 percent of the vote in Montco.

Even in this area, resist the temptation to appease the loudest voices. The weekend before the 2012 general, Mitt Romney attended a rally at a Bucks County farm that drew more than 30,000 people and he left convinced he would win the state and nation, but did neither. He must have forgotten that your brother appeared in the same cornfield in 2004 (I know, I emceed the rally) that drew 20,000 people, but he similarly lost the state.

Yard signs don't vote. But suburban Philadelphia does.