David Owens proudly voted for both George H.W Bush and George W. Bush for president. When they spoke politically, it was like listening to old family friends.
But Owens walked out a rally at Easley High School Sunday thinking that his Bush voting streak might end Saturday in the nation’s first-in-the-South primary.
“I like Jeb Bush, he’s experienced, intelligent, and I like the Bush family,” said Owens, a 77-year-old Easley resident. “But the deciding factor for me is who can beat Hillary Clinton. That’s what will probably get me to vote for Marco Rubio.”
The ties between the Bush family and South Carolina run long and deep. George Herbert Walker Bush won the state’s Republican primary twice, defeating then-Sen. Bob Dole in 1988 and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan in 1992. South Carolina Republicans then gave George W. Bush a critical primary victory in 2000, breathing new life into his campaign after he’d been defeated in New Hampshire by John McCain.
Now it’s Jeb Bush’s turn to seek South Carolina salvation. He’s hoping that family ties, political connections, and the state’s military tradition can rescue a campaign that’s being battered by the cross-currents of an anti-establishment fervor among the electorate and a rising populism that’s attracting voters to outsiders such as Donald Trump.
Still very popular in the state, George W. Bush was making his 2016 campaign debut Monday evening at a rally for his brother.
“South Carolina becomes a disproportionately relevant test for him,” said Andrew Card, who was George W. Bush’s White House chief of staff and is now president of Franklin Pierce University.
“He should appropriately be managing expectations because I don’t think he can walk in (and) the presumption is that he will have the same kind of support that his dad had or his brother had. But at least he has an entrée to get that support.”
I know that there are a lot of people that have Bush fatigue. I’m not one of them, I actually was a big fan of his brother and his father
Greenville County, S.C., Republican Party Chair Chad Groover
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Information and Communications and a former CNN White House correspondent, said Bush needs to finish in the top three in the six-candidate race to be seen as viable in the eyes of voters in the March 1 Super Tuesday contests and campaign donors.
“That’s what South Carolina does … it squeezes it down to three, maybe four,” Bierbauer said.
Jeb Bush has done a lot in Florida. ... But I think he’s seen as a traditional been-around-a-long-time Republican and folks are just leery about that this time
Pickens County, S.C., Republican Party Chair Phillip Bowers
Bush has work to do. Polls show him battling Gov. John Kasich of Ohio for fourth.
“We’ve been sort of the king-makers for the Bushes, at least the nominee-makers,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor. “But a lot of people here who have voted Bush won’t vote Bush this time. It’s just competition. He has a stronger field than his father or his brother had.”
We’re intelligent people in South Carolina. The Bush family has always had the values that we like
Voter Russell Smart, 64, of Greenville
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who endorsed Bush after ending his ownpresidential bid, believes that the Bush legacy in South Carolina is strong enough to pull him through.
“It means a lot, the family name is good here,” Graham said. “There’s still a fondness for the Bush family. Their values are close to South Carolina values.”
Graham isn’t the only establishment Republican the Bush camp is leaning on.
Iris Campbell, the widow of the late South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, who served as national co-chair of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign and a co-chairman for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential run, endorsed Jeb Bush last week. “If Carroll were with us today, he would want the people of South Carolina to get behind Jeb,” she said in a statement.
But times and voter attitudes have changed since the days when the words of powerful politicians like the Campbell and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, carried sway, and that could spell trouble for Bush.
There’s a new generation of influential elected officials, exemplified by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, and Rep. Trey Gowdy. Scott and Gowdy have tossed their support to Rubio. Haley hasn’t endorsed a candidate yet.
“For so long, South Carolina politics, given the extremes on either side, really had a core of moderates,” said Blease Graham, an assistant dean at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service and a long-time expert on South Carolina politics. “Bush 41 appealed to a moderate group – ‘we’re conservative but we’re still compassionate.’ Now there’s a kind of generational replacement from the Generation Xers and now we have millennials, who don’t always share the moderate views of an older generation.”
Like David Owens, Richard Blevins voted for Bush 41 and Bush 43. He’s taking a pass on Jeb Bush in favor of Rubio.
“The primary reason is I’m afraid of the Bush legacy – there’s such a divide,” said Blevins, 37, of Seneca, S.C. “There are a lot of people, including Republicans, who disapproved of the Iraq war and don’t support Jeb, and I think he’d have a hard time leading because of that.”
Daniel Nichols, a 36-year-old from Central, S.C., added that some of Jeb Bush’s troubles in South Carolina are of his own making.
“For the first six months, he was running away from his family,” said Nichols, who voted for George W. Bush twice. “He was saying he wasn’t establishment, that he was his own man. But your last name is Bush. You can’t pretend to be something that you’re not.”
Nichols hasn’t ruled out voting for Jeb Bush. After watching Bush aggressively go up against Trump in Sunday’s debate in Greenville and hearing Bush embrace his family legacy more, he says he’s now deciding whether to vote for the former Florida governor or Rubio.
Greenville County Republican Party Chair Chad Groover made up his mind and endorsed Bush last month, which raised a lot of eyebrows and produced a lot of phone calls.
“I endorsed on a Friday night, Sunday morning in church an older couple walks in the door and they’re like ‘Thank you so much for endorsing Gov. Bush, we really appreciate what you did,’” Groover recalled. “And then I’ve had other people publicly speak out opposed to it and say I’m in the tank for the establishment, which I’ve never been accused of before.”