DeMoss is hardly alone: In fact, powerful Christian conservatives are operating what amounts to a stealth campaign on Bush’s behalf. Some are old allies from the Florida days; others are holdovers from George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Some are both, including Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a longtime friend of Jeb’s who served as Southeast regional chairman of George W.’s 2004 reelection effort (and thus practically lived in Florida). Multiple GOP sources say that Reed has been urging Jeb Bush for several years to make a 2016 run and spoke with him recently to game out the campaign. Like many of the organizations that Bush’s supporters lead, Reed’s coalition demands impartiality from its leaders, so Reed can’t openly back his man—unless, as some suspect will happen, Reed ultimately decides to join the campaign officially. (Reed declined to comment for this story.)

While the candidate isn’t hitting the hustings to woo rank-and-file Christian voters, he’s been busy surreptitiously building a formidable coalition of socially conservative luminaries. Last summer, Bush flew to Colorado for a private luncheon with the brass of Focus on the Family. Several of America’s best-connected evangelicals broke bread with Bush, including Jim Daly, Focus’s president, whose radio program reaches a large, loyal audience, and Tim Goeglein, who was the faith liaison in George W. Bush’s White House. People familiar with the meeting—and unaffiliated with Bush—say the former governor made a striking impression, one that echoed through the uppermost echelons of the evangelical world. (Neither Daly nor Goeglein would comment.)

Bush also met last summer with Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was an all-day affair, Moore says, in which faith was a prime topic. Bush shared his personal faith journey; the two prayed together, talked about issues of urgency to evangelicals—religious liberties in particular—and bonded over their love of C. S. Lewis. Moore, who previously had no relationship with Bush, says he came away awestruck. “He was remarkably engaged intellectually,” Moore says, and “able to talk about a gamut of issues with extraordinary detail … and not just the issues you’d expect a presidential candidate to be aware of.” Bush wowed Moore by appearing to know the names of pastors at “any given church” in Florida. Most important, though, he convinced Moore that he was a true social conservative. “There have been those, over the past year, that have suggested that Governor Bush is some kind of Jon Huntsman when it comes to social issues,” Moore says. “And that’s one of the things I wanted to find out. And it’s just not the case.”