For any other candidate, it’s a simple question: How do you differ from candidates who have previously won Iowa’s lead-off caucuses?
For former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the query was more personal. After all, the questions were about his father (a three-time winner, including once over Ronald Reagan) and his brother (a two-time winner).
“In Iowa, we know the Bushes well,” the voter said, noting that “many of us voted for them.” How would President Jeb Bush be different than brother President George W. Bush or father President George H.W. Bush?
Jeb Bush has his answer down these days. After all, he’s been getting some variation on it since he started running for President. His father is “the greatest man alive” and his brother kept America safe after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Jeb Bush says.
“I’m Jeb, exclamation point,” the candidate said, poking fun as his campaign logo of “Jeb!” “I’m proud to be a Bush.”
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It was a reminder that, for all the attention the burn-it-down voices are getting, there remain mainstream Republicans who still respect institutions and tradition. They are the mainstays at caucuses every four years and more reliable than the first-timers who are flocking to frontrunner Donald Trump. “Most of us are pretty cool with another Bush in the White House,” a second voter told Bush.
Although polling in Iowa shows Bush trailing Trump, it is by no means a done deal that the billionaire will prevail on Monday. Mainstream Republican Mitt Romney collected 29,805 supporters to come in second four years ago. Romney collected 29,949 four years before that to, again, come in second.
Iowa’s caucus system is notoriously unpredictable, with just a sliver of the state’s electorate taking part. Bush’s team is oddly calm about their chances in Iowa, despite a strategy that has kept him mostly focused on New Hampshire, and continuing to campaign in rural communities like the one he visited on Friday.
“Look. Jeb Bush is the moderate, conservative Republican in the race. A lot of the other guys are extremists,” said Paul Konrad, a 46-year-old resident of nearby Glidden, Iowa. “You either love them or you hate them, but you know what you’re getting in a Bush.”
Added Cricket Donovan, a 70-year-old Disney retiree who once counted Bush as her Governor when she lived in Florida: “He’s calm. He’s not going to go flying off the handle. He knows what the job requires.” She now lives in nearby Sac City, Iowa.
Joe White, a 93-year-old resident of a Carroll assisted care center, said he voted for both previous Bushes and liked this latest installment. Even so, he was not sure he would caucus on Monday. “I don’t know about the weather. But I think Jeb could do the job. Isn’t that the only thing that matters?”
Bush was eager to remind veteran caucusgoers that they liked his kin before. He praised his father: “(He) never cursed, never raised his hand to me, was just perfect. I figured, you know what … if I can get to half of him, it was a perfect decision on my part.”
He also praised his brother, who left office deeply unpopular but, now seven years out of the White House, has seen his public image rebound. “My life was different. I moved to Florida, away from Texas,” Jeb Bush said. “I lived a very different life than my brother. My life experience are no better or worse because of that. We’re just different.”
Jeb Bush’s allies note that George W. Bush is the most popular Republican in the country and Bush has used him for fundraising among mainstream donors. There are no plans to deploy the former President to campaign for his brother before Iowa or New Hampshire, although most advisers are keeping open the option of sending him to help in the deeply conservative South Carolina primary.
Bush might need the help by then, especially if Trump uses his brand of bluster to rack up wins in Iowa and then New Hampshire. Turning to that possible outcome, Bush said his mother has little tolerance for bullying that passes for campaigning this year.
“Back to the Bush family, Barbara Bush, when she saw a kid in our family acting like that. You now what happened? Back then, they didn’t have a 1-800 hotline for child abuse,” Jeb Bush said. “We’ve got to get back to grown-up world here.”