For Jeb Bush, the crushing phone call came Wednesday afternoon.
It was Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s wildly popular governor and Republican Party darling. She had decided to endorse a candidate ahead of Saturday’s GOP presidential primary.
Not Bush — even though his brother, former President George W. Bush, paid her a deferential visit Monday. Instead, Haley backed Jeb Bush’s fiercest primary rival, Marco Rubio.
Moments later, Bush was due at a campaign event at the Summerville Country Club, northwest of Charleston. He showed up in shirtsleeves, no tie — and, now that he’s realized they aged him, no glasses — and grabbed the microphone, uttering not one word of the Haley news.
But Bush was suddenly edgy, speaking with new urgency three days before the “first in the South” primary that helped seal his father’s and brother’s nominations — but where Bush is battling for third or fourth place.
“On Saturday, y’all can make a choice of who you want to have in the Oval Office, the sacred ground of the White House,” Bush said. “The leader of the free world. That’s who you’re selecting.”
Clearly frustrated, Bush added: “I’ve got more detailed plans than you know what to do with!”
But that’s not enough, and Bush knows it. Which is why, for the second time in a single day, he pounded Rubio as an inexperienced, first-term “back-bench” U.S. senator too green for the job. Rubio has poked Bush repeatedly in recent days for having “no foreign policy experience.”
“Wow, coming from a guy whose office has a hard time saying actually what his accomplishments are,” Bush said Wednesday morning in Beaufort, near Hilton Head. “That’s kind of a low blow if you think about it.”
Bush boasted about overseeing Florida’s National Guard as governor — and of conducting trade missions, and of living briefly in Venezuela, and of traveling far and wide after he left office.
“With all due respect, Sen. Rubio, your four years or five years or whatever it is as senator does not match up to my capabilities of understanding how the world works,” Bush said.
And so it continued from Bush later in the day, after Rubio picked up the support of Haley, a fellow 44-year-old child of immigrants who, like Rubio, was elected in the tea-party wave and then became part of the new GOP establishment.
“Marco Rubio is my friend. We actually live almost in the same ZIP Code,” Bush, of Coral Gables, said before launching into his critique of Rubio, of West Miami, and excusing himself for doing so. “I hope you don’t mind. That’s not negative campaigning — that’s called politics.”
Bush trails Rubio in most South Carolina polls, which show Donald Trump holding an ample lead ahead of Ted Cruz.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Bush backer since ending his own presidential bid, told reporters in Summerville on Wednesday that the campaign’s internal polls in his state show Trump’s numbers slipping since Saturday’s combative debate — with Cruz, Rubio and Bush bunched up behind him.
Team Bush hopes he can pull off another New Hampshire, where Bush edged Rubio for fourth place after Trump, John Kasich and Cruz. Finishing a close fourth to Rubio’s third might be enough for Bush to hold on to his financial donors. The real problems could come if Rubio somehow overtakes Cruz, whom he’s been targeting pointedly for days.
Haley’s endorsement, though, showed the South Carolina GOP closing ranks on Rubio, who’s also backed by the state’s other U.S. senator, Tim Scott, and high-profile U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, who has led the investigation into the deadly 2012 attack against the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. (Shortly after Haley’s announcement, Bush’s campaign noted that he’d received the support of four South Carolina Republicans unknown in national politics, including the state’s education chief.)
And the heat wasn’t just coming from the Rubio camp.
Three people at Bush’s Summerville town hall openly questioned his campaign strategy.
One man, a military veteran, praised Bush for meeting with him and others last year in Charleston — “You pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and took notes for three hours,” he said, in awe — but wondered why Bush didn’t talk about that on the stump.
Another, 62-year-old David Villinger from nearby Ridgeville, urged for more positivity: “I think the campaign has been co-opted by the P.T. Barnum of our time,” he said. “And I think he is getting you off your good message.”
And a third, 58-year-old Edward Scott of Maryland, in town for business, called Bush “the best-qualified person” but implored Bush to “try to be beyond the bullying” in debates. “It appears that you do get knocked off-center — like anybody would — because of the insults to you and your family,” he said.
Bush pushed back, countering that someone needs to take on Trump. “I’m the only guy going after the guy who I believe is hijacking the party.”
But is it working?
In Beaufort, 56-year-old Beverly Whitaker said no.
“Poor Jeb. There’s nobody here. It’s kind of depressing,” she said before Bush’s event, which she compared to a larger Rubio rally she attended the night before. And after listening to Bush, she wasn’t persuaded, either: “Nope,” she said. “No energy. No vision. Just very defensive.”
Bush only got more prickly in Summerville.
“It’s all been decided, apparently,” he said sarcastically of being written off in the race. “The pundits have already figured it out. We don’t have to go vote. I should stop campaigning, maybe.”
When he wrapped up, sound engineers turned on the music.
Journey played Don’t Stop Believin’.
Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei is in South Carolina for the primary. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei
Trump loses his grip in national poll
For the first time in months, Donald Trump has lost the lead in a major national poll, falling behind Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Trump took the lead in national GOP surveys in July, surpassing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He has dominated the race since then, except for a period in the fall during Ben Carson’s short boomlet.
But the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a significant shift: Cruz has the backing of 28 percent of the Republican primary voters surveyed, with Trump at 26 percent. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, at 17 percent, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio at 11 percent, Carson at 10 percent, and Bush at 4 percent round out the field.
Tribune Washington Bureau