A day after making his bid for the Republican presidential nomination official, the former Florida governor fielded questions from New Hampshire voters for more than an hour Tuesday, insisting he was the best candidate to restore U.S. prosperity.
“I know how it’s done because I’ve done it,” Bush said. “I did it as governor of Florida. I cut taxes every year; I reduced the government workforce by 13,000. That’s kind of hard to do, but I did it.”
Once an establishment favorite, Bush’s candidacy has failed to clear the field. Even as he took the stage, the race picked up another contender, with New York businessman Donald Trump declaring his candidacy.
Bush declined to take on his rivals by name, but implicitly he sought to differentiate himself, at least from the senators in the race.
“I didn’t file an amendment and call that success,” Bush said. “I actually did things as governor.”
He said his record for creating jobs in Florida could go up against any governor. “If you ever see my good friend Rick Perry or even my brother George W., tell them that we created more jobs than Texas,” Bush said of the former governors.
Many conservatives remain deeply skeptical of Bush – a hurdle Fox News host Sean Hannity pointed to as he interviewed Bush on the stage before the town hall.
“I’ve been a candidate less than 24 hours,” Bush replied. “My mission now is to tell that story.”
Voters appeared generally aware of Bush’s record – and impressed with it.
“He seemed to keep Florida’s budget in control and we sorely need that on the federal level,” said Richard Hagen, 68, a retired comptroller. “It’s time to get back to some good old Yankee conservativism.”
Pat Poole, a retired federal employee from nearby Litchfield, said Bush displayed a command of his material that impressed her. He spoke, at length without notes, she said, and appeared ready for all comers.
“He seemed to have all the answers and he’s proven it in Florida,” she said. “I think I agreed with everything he said.”
But she and others in the state, which prides itself on its first-in-the-nation primary, said they’ve yet to commit. Bush – who campaigns later this week in Iowa and South Carolina – is hoping for a good showing in independent-minded New Hampshire to edge out of the pack.
David Lee, 55, an independent who backed Sen. John McCain in 2008, declined a Jeb! sticker, saying he hasn’t yet decided. He said he’s already seen New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and is hoping to see Trump.
“We like to joke about shopping for candidates in New Hampshire, but we take it seriously,” Lee said.
As for Bush: “He’s got a lot of experience as governor, but his name could hurt him,” Lee said. “A lot of people aren’t going to look beyond it.”
Bush, who finds himself neck and neck in New Hampshire with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, acknowledged his place, with a laugh, when one voter told him it was the third time he’d seen him.
“We will probably meet about 20 times more,” Bush said. “I am working my way up the ladder.”
Bush, who noted that he kicked off his candidacy in “crazy, wacky” Miami, chose for his first New Hampshire event a quintessential New England backdrop: the red-brick historic Derry Opera House, its balconies festooned with red, white and blue bunting.
He spoke standing from the center of the room, tieless, with the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up.
In response to a question, Bush said he was reluctant to criticize Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment even as he said he was more interested in religion’s role in “making us better people,” rather than politics.
“I’m a little skeptical,” Bush said. “I don’t think the science is complete.”
Still, Bush said living in Miami has made him believe areas with rising sea levels need to take action – whether or not climate change is man made.
Before the town hall, Bush had his back to the audience for a lengthy interview with Hannity, complimenting Hillary Clinton as “smart” but questioning whether she had any accomplishments as a U.S. senator or secretary of state.
“I’ll put that record up against Hillary Clinton any day of the week,” he said of his own record.
As for running against his fellow Floridian Rubio, Bush called it a “little awkward,” but added, “That’s just the way it is, it doesn’t bother me a bit.”