Jeb Bush has struggled and launched a campaign reboot this week in New Hampshire
He is one of eight candidates who will appear on the main stage Tuesday night in Milwaukee for the next GOP debate
He has hired consultant Jon Kraushar to train him to play more like the others on stage: boisterous and assertive
Jeb Bush knows he has to become a stronger candidate and show more command on the debate stage. And he also hears from countless supporters and well-wishers who encourage him to just be himself.
Therein lies the challenge: Can he do both?
Bush, an accomplished two-term governor of Florida, is at his best when he’s fielding nuanced policy questions from informed voters at town halls and has the space to deliver impressive answers that show his fluency in complex issues. It’s a different atmosphere from what he will face Tuesday night in Milwaukee for the next GOP presidential debate.
Time and time again, voters walk away from his events wowed by his familiarity with some of their most complex questions, ranging from Eastern European politics to child welfare programs.
At his fifth event of a marathon day in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Bush spoke for 90 minutes to an intensely attentive audience at a World War II museum in Wolfeboro. People were listening so closely that when Bush paused for dramatic effect at times, the silence in the room was deafening.
With a backdrop of old tanks and fighter planes surrounding him, Bush delivered an impassioned pitch for why he wants to be president, displaying a newfound energy that’s getting an increasing amount of attention from the media.
“I feel like getting on top of a tank and charging somewhere,” Bush said playfully after getting winning applause for his stump speech. “Where’s Gen. Patton?”
But for all the vigor and confidence he exhibited – and the advice and compliments he was showered with from voters who rushed to greet him – Bush was almost constantly reminded about his performances on the debate stage.
“I want to tell you: If I were your mother, I would be proud,” an elderly woman told him as Bush warmly patted her on the shoulder. “Talk to the people on TV – and when you’re on debates – the way you talked to us tonight.”
Another man told him he did a wonderful job and that he “just needs to loosen up” on the debate stage.
Jim O’Rourke of Wolfeboro encouraged Bush to take his “wonkishness” and “make it a virtue.”
“Embrace my wonkishness?” Bush exclaimed. “It’s hard to do that in 60 seconds.” But he added, “It’s a good observation. I’ll strive to get better.”
Working for a bounce back
Bush launched a weeklong “Jeb can fix it” tour on Monday designed to tell the story of his governorship by promoting a new e-book and using Florida surrogates on the campaign trail. The point? Experience matters.
It kicked off with a lively rally in Tampa and continued with a stop at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in South Carolina. It was then followed by a jam-packed three-day bus tour in New Hampshire with nine public events.
In between events, Bush did lengthy sit-down interviews with every major TV news outlet and brought reporters onto his campaign bus for in-depth conversations about the state of his campaign.
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The tour came a week after Bush went through perhaps the most devastating time of his presidential run. He had just downsized his staff, delivered a poorly reviewed performance at the CNBC debate, and saw a major GOP donor, Paul Singer, sign up to back Marco Rubio – all while his poll numbers sank to the middle of the pack.
But while sitting in a booth on his campaign bus, snacking on turkey jerky to keep in line with his paleo diet, Bush maintained an almost brash certitude that he would win the nomination. The previous week may have been difficult, he acknowledged, but he is staying on message, insisting he’s thinking about the long game, especially in New Hampshire. Voters, Bush says, will eventually nominate the person they view as the most electable and experienced.
“At the end of the day, places like New Hampshire make up their mind based on who they want to see as the party’s nominee to president of the United States. Not to prey on their fears. Not to fulfill their angst,” he said. “And when we get to that decision point, I feel pretty good about my chances, to be honest with you.”
Acknowledging his failures
Still, Bush is promising donors and supporters that he’ll improve.
In the October 28 CNBC debate, Bush delivered an attack on Sen. Marco Rubio that fell flat, and played along with a question about fantasy football. Bush, who tends to answers the questions he’s asked rather than pivoting them to campaign talking points, said there could be some regulation. He also touted – as he often has – his successful fantasy football team featuring New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
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But Chris Christie quickly jumped in, rousing the audience to loud applause when he blasted the question as ridiculous media bias and said the government has more important issues to deal with rather than worry about fantasy football.
It was a moment that demonstrated what’s become a weakness for Bush in a cutthroat Republican primary: He tries to play by the rules.
“I thought it was a debate. I’ve had 62 years of DNA upbringing where you’re supposed to answer the question,” Bush told reporters on his campaign bus.
His team has hired consultant Jon Kraushar to train him to play more like the others on stage: boisterous and assertive. That also includes not answering questions like he’s used to.
“It’s a chance to be able to say what you think,” Bush said. “I’m going to take advantage of that.”
Bush said it’s not easy to receive advice “because typically it’s totally conflictive,” though it’s something he’s learned to accept. And while he tried to put a positive spin on it, saying the advice is a sign that people care about him, it was clear that Bush was exasperated by the process side of campaigns that oftentimes dominates that political conversation.
One of his surrogates, Tiffany Carr, who worked with Bush to combat domestic violence in Florida, was riding on the bus and expressed outright dismay at reporters for asking so many questions about Bush’s campaign and his stylistic challenges.
Bush sat back and read a newspaper as she urged the media to focus more on substantive issues.
“You’re not going to get them to do this, Tiffany,” Bush said. “A girl can dream. It’s just not going to happen.”
Stressing authenticity, but trying to change
At the same time he’s taking advice and learning methods that run counter to his DNA, as he put it, Bush and his campaign are also trying to play up his authenticity.
And one element of that is his accessibility. He told stories this week about emailing with constituents sometimes hundreds of times a day as governor. Such emails are found throughout his e-book, and he still regularly gives out his email address on the campaign trail.
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On the bus with reporters, he interrupted the discussion to hold up his phone and show an email he had just received from a college student. “I need toilet paper,” the email said. “Can you grab some?”
Bush is also vowing to stay true to himself, and his campaign is using Abraham Lincoln as an example they hope will resonate. At his rally on Monday, Richard Corcoran, a former chief of staff to Rubio when he was Florida House speaker, invoked the revered American president.
“How different would this country be if a tall, gangly guy who was sometimes awkward wasn’t elected in 1860?” Corcoran said.
Bush himself referenced Lincoln, whom he argued stayed true to his own style.
“If Lincoln were alive today, imagine the foolishness he would have to suffer. Advisers telling him to shave his beard. Cable pundits telling him to lose the top hat,” Bush said. “Opposition researchers calling him a five-time loser before the age of 50.”
Bush said he’s also faced superficial advice, like nixing his glasses or changing up his wardrobe. Other advice, he argued, is more strategic, like nailing certain attack lines or appearing “angrier.”
“But I have learned two important things from my time serving the people of Florida: One, I can’t be someone I’m not,” he said. “And, two, getting things done isn’t about yelling into a camera, or regurgitating sound bites free of substance.”
Asked on the bus if he can still be himself yet take on a new strategy at the debate, Bush was ready with an answer.
“I’m going to be myself by saying what’s on my mind.”