The question came from the audience, but it might as well have come from inside Jeb Bush’s own brain: “Why would you want to be President of a nation that would consider voting for Donald Trump?”
The former Florida Governor shook his head on this snowy Saturday morning. Such questions are not uncommon at Bush’s campaign events. With less than a month before voters in leadoff Iowa and New Hampshire, they are ones he has been struggling to answer for himself. These days, as he goes from event to event, it has become clear that he making his peace with a presidential campaign that is unlike anything he could have predicted, and one that might leave him and his supporters deeply disappointed.
“I don’t think Donald Trump is a reflection of the American people,” Bush answered Saturday. Then, as he was trying to make the case that his leadership experience trumped Trump’s belligerent talk, a voter interrupted, shouting “We want our jobs back!” The former frontrunner whose support has waned has nothing left to lose, and he has scarce patience for such theatrics these days. “That’s good, dude, but let me answer this young man’s question first,” Bush said.
Everywhere Bush goes, he seems overshadowed by Trump. On Friday, one voter urged him to be more precise in his discussion of Trump. Don’t call the billionaire unhinged, the mental health professional told Bush. Call him a narcissist or a sociopath. The next day, in Hampstead, N.H., a voter reminded Bush that early pundits thought his nomination was inevitable. “What happened?” the voter asked.
Bush takes these questions in stride. His strategy these days is simply to pitch himself as he is: a wonky technocrat who lacks the bombast of Trump, the charisma of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or the purist polish of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “I’m not going to change who I am. I’m not,” he said. “I’m not going to play the game.” Either voters are going to go with him or they’re not. “I’m not on reality TV. I try to be reality-based,” he said.
As a result, the once-tentative campaigner has given way in recent weeks to a more confident politician. He has a foil in Trump and is developing a groove in New Hampshire. “I’m the only guy taking Donald Trump on,” Bush joked. He then jokingly crouched in a defensive position.
The question is whether the timing works in Bush’s favor, of if he’s finally getting his break too late. Bush and his super PAC have spent more than $50 million so far, though he can’t break single digits in most early state or national polls. “This isn’t bean bag. You have to put your big boy pants on sometimes and fight for what you believe,” Bush told voters in Hampstead.
His bet is that voters will reward his wonkiness that, at first, was seen as a liability. “I still believe that ideas and policies have consequences,” Bush likes to tell his audiences. Compared to Trump’s flimsy policy proposals and heated rhetoric, Bush claims to like his odds. “If you repeat something over and over again, it becomes true. It doesn’t, but that’s the way Donald rolls,” Bush mocked his rival. “If Trump wants to have a debate on this, it would be a complete mismatch.”
The question remains, however, what to do about Trump, the current frontrunner who has remained atop the heap far longer than anyone expected. “I think the world is volatile. Politics is volatile. He’s volatile,” Bush tells TIME in an interview. “New Hampshire decides late. They’re discerning voters. I will put my trust in them.”
That is really his own option, given the electoral environment where he finds himself. “There’s a mythology that’s built up for all candidates,” Bush said Saturday. Trump’s story is that he’s the frontrunner and that Bush is a low-energy loser. Both, Bush said, were false. He then thanked his audience for its patience while he tried to sort out his place in the race. “It was like giving me therapy,” Bush said.