Jeb Bush’s biggest challenge may be setting himself apart from his brother. Yet Bush has managed to do that in one way he didn’t want: the path to the Republican presidential nomination.
Unlike his brother’s aggressive launch for the presidency in 2000, when George W. Bush bulldozed most GOP competitors out of the field, Jeb Bush is looking at more than a dozen challengers, some with significant resources and staying power.
Indeed, the route may bear more resemblance to his father’s 1988 grueling chase to the nomination. Despite being vice president, George H.W. Bush faced considerable competition from Sen. Bob Dole and evangelical leader Pat Robertson before winning the nomination and then the White House.
Jeb Bush has raised gobs of money. That – and backing from much of the Republican establishment – helped keep 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney from jumping in again.
But since then, Bush’s muddled efforts at distinguishing himself and sustained antipathy from conservatives who oppose his positions on immigration and education have done little to convince anyone else to stay out – a factor aided by the rise of political action committees and deep-pocket donors that make it easier for more candidates to stay in the running.
“He really finds himself smack dab in the middle of the pack in a huge field of Republican candidates,” said Iowa Republican analyst Craig Robinson. “They thought it was going to be Romney 2012, where it’s the front-runner and then everybody else. But he is part of the everybody else.”
Bush has said he didn’t expect a coronation, but Robinson says the slow walk out created a stall. Bush trails in Iowa, the state that kicks off the nominating season next winter, in a pack well behind Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
“I think they overestimated Jeb Bush,” Robinson said. “Yes, his last name is Bush and yes he’s going to raise all kinds of money, but people don’t know him.”
That lack of certitude could aid Bush in independent-minded New Hampshire, where voters pride themselves in taking their own measure of the candidates. Bush has a very narrow edge over Walker there.
“He’s not a front-runner in the normal sense and I don’t think anyone wants a front-runner,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican activist and former state attorney general who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns. “Voters in New Hampshire enjoy the opportunity to choose without anyone telling them what they’re going to do.”
The contrast with his brother – who came into New Hampshire as the undisputed front-runner only to lose to John McCain – also could help the former Florida governor stake his own claim running from inside the pack rather than from on high.
His father in 1988 had lost Iowa, then fought back to win New Hampshire, prompting a bitter Dole to complain that Bush should “stop lying about my record.”
“He’s going to have to fight,” Rath said of the current race. “I think Jeb Bush understands that, and I think he probably welcomes the opportunity to fight because it’s an opportunity to prove who he is.”
Bush’s slow walk to official candidacy produced a rocky start: Even some of his supporters were aghast when it took him a week to articulate an answer to a question about the Iraq war his brother initiated. He’s sputtered in polls and his fledgling campaign became headline news for a staffing shakeup.
But it also may have allowed Bush, who hadn’t been on a campaign trail since 2002, to get in some practice in the punishing pace of campaigning in the era of Twitter and Periscope. He’s grown more comfortable delivering a stump speech, though he still fares better in one-on-one exchanges. He wrapped up a trip to Germany, Poland and Estonia with solid reviews – and avoided the gaffes that have overshadowed trips by other candidates.
“I never got the impression that anyone in that campaign thought the waters were going to part for Jeb Bush,” said Chip Felkel, an unaffiliated Republican strategist in South Carolina who worked for George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush. “It’s a different ballgame, a different year. The party has become a lot more fractious and they know that.”
Bush and Walker are neck and neck in South Carolina. That may mirror increased pragmatism after South Carolina Republicans in 2012 boosted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the primary, only to see him lose the nomination.
“Republicans want to win this election and I think people are going to gravitate to the most conservative who in turn can win a general election,” Felkel said.
Bush’s first challenge will be emerging from the family shadow with an identity of his own. Rivals such as Walker and Bush’s one-time Florida ally, Sen. Marco Rubio, are fresher faces. Rubio, especially, has sought to create a sharper generational contrast with Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“There’s only one candidate that had a backpack with weight to overcome, the Bush identity both helps and hurts,” said Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush adviser and former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “His greatest access to improvement is leaving the Bush identity and gaining the Jeb ID with as many as voters as possible.”