When he started his campaign, Jeb Bush thought competence and a conservative record would power him to the GOP nomination and, like his brother and father before, to the Oval Office. Eleven months later, faced with declining poll numbers and difficulty sustaining fundraising, the 62-year-old wonk is coming to grips with voters’ desire for something else.
So he has traded in his footnotes for profanity and ditched the blacked-out SUV for a campaign bus that welcomes reporters on board.
Meet the retooled Jeb Bush, the awkward scion of a political dynasty who thus far has had little use for making voters feel loved. He thinks his path to the election now runs through showing and selling his authentic nerdy self. That means pulling down the stage curtains with the press, admitting his flaws, munching his paleo-friendly turkey jerky in front of cameras. It is an all-in bet on the idea that he really is someone the Republican Party will elect with all his experience, caution, wonkiness, and introversion.
Snacking on a banana and the ever-handy jerky between campaign stops in eastern New Hampshire, Bush affected displeasure when an aide, Tim Miller, offered up a party-sized bag of M&Ms for “a little energy.” “You think I need a little more energy?” Bush joked.
Mixing dry wit with sober reflection, Bush laid out his current state of mind. “I felt really good about the debate I screwed up on,” he says, candidly. He lightheartedly apologized to France for understating their workweek in his failed assault on Sen. Marco Rubio. “I really did a disservice to the French,” he added with a chuckle.
As for the forces that have pushed him from the top-tier, he was still not sure what they meant. “I’m not smart enough to know—to explain the Trump or Carson phenomenon yet,” Bush says, before praising the retired neurosurgeon leading nationally in the GOP polls.
The invitations for press to hop aboard the “Jeb Can Fix This” motor coach are an obvious throwback to Sen. John McCain’s vaunted “Straight Talk Express” from his successful 2000 and 2008 Granite State campaigns. Noting McCain had won the nomination in 2008 after a near-total campaign meltdown the summer before, Bush says they’re different people before musing, “It’s a pretty good model if you want to win.”
One thing is certain: Bush needed something to change after a lackluster debate performance he offered in Boulder, Colo., last week. By all measures, he lost badly. He failed to land a punch against one-time friend Marco Rubio. He was relegated to the sidelines by criticism of the moderators from CNBC. He looked lost on stage as loudmouths Ted Cruz and Donald Trump bellowed over rivals. This was never Jeb Bush’s strength, and he had a particularly bad reminder of it.
Advisers to the two-term Governor are hoping his reboot is enough and that their candidate will finally start appealing to a fed-up electorate that is ready to reward anyone who isn’t like the typical politician. “I think the frustration of the base of our party has grown after the election,” he said of 2014. “There was an expectation that with the control of the Senate that there would be stuff getting done.”
At a town hall in an incandescent-lit barn in Rye hosted by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, Bush came out shouting. “We’re Americans, dammit,” he said, responding to the defeatist attitude of some of his rivals. “The government is a parasite—we’re the host,” he later said.
“Live free or die, brothers and sisters,” he added. “That’s what I’m for.” It’s pandering, for sure, and not even good pandering at that. But it is a sign of life that Bush’s advisers had hoped he could muster before it became too late.
At a meet and greet at the Hollis Pharmacy, Bush even earned praise of his positive tone from a voter who berated him over his tax plan. “I did you like saying America has a future,” the man said after a two-minute verbal sparring match. “That’s the first positive thing I’ve heard from Republicans.”
In Raymond, N.H., a man asking about entitlements complimented Bush on his new determination. “By the way, good energy tonight,” the voter quipped. “I actually have good energy every night,” Bush replied with a laugh. But it was hard to miss that something had changed. After getting an impassioned answer about the need for Department of Veterans Affairs reform off his chest, Bush exhaled for effect. “I feel better now,” he said.
Bush recently hired renowned TV consultant Jon Kraushar to help him improve in these situations. “Yeah, I’ve had one meeting with the guy,” Bush told ABC News aboard his campaign bus Wednesday. “He’s telling me to be me.” Bush said he is changing up his preparation for next week’s Fox Business Network debate in Milwaukee, after not a single rehearsed debate question was asked by CNBC.
“The so-called debate is more of a performance, not a debate like you answer questions,” he explains. “It gives you an opportunity to say whatever you want, and I’ve got to train myself to say what’s on my mind, rather than what the question is.”
On Tuesday, Bush reflected on his lackluster debate performance in Boulder, saying nerves were not at fault. “I got shouted down when I tried to interrupt at the beginning and then I couldn’t finish the sentence in the Marco deal, and then I never got asked a question that was relevant,” he said. “It was just kind of an off night. But I wasn’t nervous. Maybe I should be.”
Indeed, the Rubio question is one Bush is still trying to answer. Bush was Governor when Rubio rose to become Florida’s first Hispanic House Speaker. The father-son relationship, however, has quietly been fracturing behind the scenes. That split spilled into full view on CNBC—as had been previewed for weeks—when Bush criticized Rubio’s attendance record.
He’s also coming back for a second swing at Rubio. “The challenges we face as a nation are too great to roll the dice on another presidential experiment,” he said in Florida Monday. Aboard the campaign bus, Bush cast himself as a passionate backer of Rubio’s 2010 Senate bid. When party poobahs sought to convince Rubio to clear the way for then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to run for the senate seat, Bush said he encouraged Rubio to stay in.
“I said, what are you doing man,” Bush recalled. “I called him up. ‘You want to be a United States senator, don’t you.’ And he said, ‘yeah.’ And I said, ‘well if you want to be a United States Senator you have to run for the United States Senate. You can’t leave the ring and go and become Attorney General.”
Maybe he now wishes Rubio had kept his powder dry. It would have made Bush’s attempt to be the third member of his party to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue all the more easy.