LAS VEGAS — Many of the Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race, courting him and his intimates and starting talks on fundraising strategy.

Concerned that the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal has damaged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s political standing and alarmed by the steady rise of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, prominent donors, conservative leaders and longtime operatives say they consider Bush the GOP’s brightest hope to win back the White House.

Bush’s advisers insist that he is not actively exploring a candidacy and will not make a decision until at least the end of this year. But over the past few weeks, Bush has traveled the country delivering policy speeches, campaigning for Republicans ahead of the fall midterm elections, honing messages on income inequality and foreign policy, and cultivating ties with wealthy benefactors – all signals that he is considering a run.

PREFERRED BY ROMNEY DONORS

Many if not most of Mitt Romney’s major donors are reaching out to Bush and his confidants with phone calls, emails and invitations to meet, according to interviews with 30 senior Republicans. One bundler estimated that the “vast majority” of Romney’s top 100 donors would back Bush in a competitive nomination fight.

“He’s the most desired candidate out there,” said another bundler, Brian Ballard, who sat on the national finance committees for Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. “Everybody that I know is excited about it.”

But Bush, 61, would have serious vulnerabilities as a candidate. Out of public office for seven years, he has struggled in some appearances and has had difficulty navigating the Republican Party’s fault lines on immigration and other issues. A Bush candidacy also would test whether the nation still has a hangover from the George W. Bush administration.

On Thursday night, Bush was feted here at a VIP dinner held by Sheldon Adelson inside the billionaire casino magnate’s airplane hangar. When one donor told Bush, “I hope you run for president in 2016,” the crowd of about 60 guests burst into applause, said a donor in attendance.

Bush also met privately with Adelson. One person with knowledge of the conversation said the former governor was “very laid back and comfortable” and that they did not discuss the 2016 campaign.

Bush has been nurturing donor relationships for years. Earlier this month, he headlined a fundraiser for Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie at former ambassador Al Hoffman’s home in North Palm Beach, Fla. Private-equity manager Lewis Eisenberg and former ambassador Ned Siegel were among the heavy hitters in attendance.

And in July, investor Scott Kapnick threw a book party for Bush at his Manhattan apartment. About 100 leading GOP donors showed up.

Such events are a reminder that Bush, the son and brother of past presidents, could quickly activate a large national fundraising network if he chooses to run.

He would enter a wide-open contest for the GOP nomination with other advantages, as well: deep ties to his party’s establishment and evangelical wings, and a reputation as a reform-minded policy wonk. Fluent in Spanish, Bush has credibility within the Hispanic community that could help broaden his coalition. He also has the gravitas many Republicans say is required to compete with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrats’ leading potential contender.

“Jeb has the capacity to bring the party together,” said Fred Malek, a top Republican official who said he has been in regular contact with Bush.

Bush often writes gracious thank-you notes to those urging him to run but takes care never to indicate whether he is moving toward a campaign.

“He is not in the middle of a formal process,” said Sally Bradshaw, his longtime political counselor in Florida. “He is methodical, he is thoughtful, and he’ll make a decision by the end of the year or the first quarter of next year.”

Bush declined a request for an interview.

People close to him said a major concern about running is navigating today’s messy spectacle of Twitter wars and super-PAC attacks. In January, Bush said, “The decision will be based on ‘Can I do it joyfully,’ because I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits.”

Bush takes pains not to be seen contacting key Republicans from early-primary states, but in October he asked a staff member for the cellphone number of Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. He called Ayotte to commend her for standing up to their party’s conservative bloc during the federal government shutdown, people familiar with the conversation said.

‘CRISIS OF OPPORTUNITY’

Last month, Bush spoke in Southern California about income inequality, arguing that the problem is a lack of mobility and not the gulf between rich and poor. “This nation is experiencing a crisis of opportunity,” he said, according to his prepared remarks.

Mark DeMoss, a former adviser to Romney who is well-connected with evangelicals, said, “I think he is a talented, credible, thinking leader. The question is, how much appetite is there in the Republican Party and in the general electorate for that?”

In the past, Bush has decided against seeking national office. His wife, Columba, who was born in Mexico, shies away from the limelight.

Bush ran his last campaign in 2002, and during last year’s rollout of his book, “Immigration Wars,” his inconsistent position on a path to legalization revealed that he is politically rusty.

Bush’s vocal support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards – lightning-rod issues for tea party activists – could dog him in the GOP primaries.

But unlike Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – Republicans who agreed to expand Medicaid under President Obama’s health-care law – Bush has spoken out against doing so.

Bush would have to grapple with the legacy of his brother George W. Bush and his unpopular wars. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that almost half of all Americans surveyed say they “definitely would not” vote for Jeb Bush for president.

“The ‘Bush fatigue’ question is always there,” said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican. “If his name was Jeb Brown instead of Jeb Bush, he’d be the front-runner.”

Bush is in regular touch with foreign policy thinkers such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who said in an interview that he would be “delighted” if Bush ran – although Kissinger said he also likes Christie.