If Jeb Bush is going to go down, then he’s going down swinging — at the guy he once treated as one of his political heirs in Florida.
Bush cut into Republican competitor Marco Rubio repeatedly and by name with renewed urgency Thursday, five days before New Hampshire’s all-important primary. In the span of only an hour or two, the former governor called the sitting senator a “career politician” with “no record” who is trying to “rewrite history” in his surging campaign.
“He was elected when he was 26,” Bush told employees at Globe Manufacturing in Pittsfield, the same firefighter-suit producer Rubio had visited a day earlier. “But he has never done anything in his life.”
These days, it’s impossible to tell the Bush-in-New-Hampshire story without mentioning Rubio. Rubio represents the biggest obstacle for Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the three current or former governors still in the race.
The same man Bush once endorsed for the U.S. Senate, the one to whom he offered a symbolic sword when Rubio took over as Florida House speaker, could crush Bush’s ambitions.
Rubio’s candidacy has undeniable buzz. He's picked up enough new support since his third-place finish in Monday's Iowa caucuses that he has surpassed Bush in congressional endorsements. His aides announced Thursday that they’d even gotten the backing of a Nevada assemblyman who had originally endorsed Bush. (This from a campaign that for months gave Bush endorsement announcements the brush-off.)
Rubio dismissed the experience attacks by Bush and Christie, telling reporters Thursday that it sounded like “desperation.”
“No one running for president has presidential experience,” Rubio said. “Being president is nothing like being governor. It's nothing like being a senator.”
Rubio now has his allies countering Bush’s message. Conservative Solutions PAC released a a new video and a radio spot Thursday dismissing Bush as a candidate of the past.
“What happened to Jeb Bush?” one of them begins, stressing that Bush’s campaign “spent millions” and then “tanked.”
“Jeb Bush’s ideas are old and wrong, from Wall Street bailouts to Common Core” educational standards, the spot concludes. “Jeb Bush: He did some good things in the past, but he’s not the answer for America’s future.”
Bush took the reaction as a sign that he’s doing well enough in New Hampshire to merit attention from rivals — even though on Wednesday he had to implore a town hall audience to “Please clap.”
“I’ve laid out the most detailed plans about the future, much more than him, and he’s attacking me at the same time that he’s all worried that people are attacking him,” Bush told reporters Thursday outside the Tilt’n Diner (“No Crybabies, No Beepers”) in Tilton, where he shook voters’ hands and had lunch. “This is politics. I can take the hits. Sen. Rubio was supportive of Race to the Top, the one indirect means by which the federal government would have been involved in Common Core standards.”
But Rubio is the one on the rise.
“Bush is a fantastic guy. I don’t think the American public is ready for another Bush,” Lorianne Updike Toler, 36, of Hopkinton, said after a Rubio town hall in Bow on Thursday.
Nonsense, said Fred Miller, a 51-year-old Republican hardware distributor from Londonderry who attended a Bush town hall meeting in nearby Derry on Thursday evening with about 300 other people.
Bush, he said, is “straightforward, not a lot of rhetoric. … All the way back in August, September, he already had clear plans.”
Still, Bush brought serious backup to the campaign trail Thursday: his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush.
She received a standing ovation — to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann — and introduced her son as “the world’s nicest man.”
“He’s decent, honest — everything we need in a president,” she said.
Bush, who has finally gotten comfortable enough as a candidate to embrace his family’s legacy, choked back tears mentioning his father, who wasn’t present.
“Mom, my crowd sizes normally aren’t this large,” he joked. “I wonder why.”
Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei is in New Hampshire for the primaries. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei