Elections

What a difference a year makes for Jeb Bush’s presidential ambitions

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks during a campaign stop last week in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks during a campaign stop last week in Manchester, New Hampshire. AP

Jeb Bush has effectively been running for president for an entire year, traversing the country to collect benefactors’ checks, recruit staff, tackle fickle voters’ questions, and pledge, time and time again, that he would “show his heart” to win over the Republican primary electorate.

He has little to show for it.

Bush announced on Facebook last Dec. 16 that he would explore a 2016 Republican presidential bid. Prohibitive favorite, pundits asserted. Presumed front-runner. Political juggernaut.

A year later, Bush enters Tuesday night’s GOP primary debate in fifth place in many national polls, a drop that began in July, only a month after Bush formally launched his candidacy. The millions spent on his behalf for advertising — about $45 million by the Right to Rise USA super PAC, more than for any other candidate — may have halted his slide, but they’ve failed to move his numbers up.

The real juggernaut turned out to be celebrity real-estate developer Donald Trump, who steamrolled into the race a day after Bush.

Republicans don’t start making decisions until the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, which Bush’s camp has never expected to win. Voters in New Hampshire, who cast ballots Feb. 9, tend to make up their minds at the last minute, so Bush’s campaign insists he still has time to improve. Early polls, they like to say, aren’t necessarily predictive.

But a month ago, Bush was privately telling political donors that Trump’s popularity would be on the wane by Dec. 15. He was wrong: A national Monmouth University poll released Monday showed the real-estate magnate garnering his highest support yet, 27 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump led Cruz 41-14 percent.

Bush’s tally? Three percent. And the former Florida governor is faring only marginally better in state-by-state polls.

His campaign largely blames the Trump effect.

“I don’t think anybody expected somebody with Donald Trump’s liberal track record leading the field in December,” Bush spokesman Tim Miller said Monday. “That said, Jeb knew from the start this was going to be a difficult race. He knew this nomination would have to be earned.”

Jeb knew from the start this was going to be a difficult race.

Tim Miller, Jeb Bush spokesman

“He continues to outwork everyone in the field,” Miller added. “And in seven or eight weeks, when voters start picking a commander-in-chief to lead the country through perilous times, given Jeb’s proven track record and his plan to take on ISIS, he’s well-positioned to be that person.”

But Bush has also faltered on his own, according to about a dozen Florida political insiders interviewed by the Miami Herald. Before Trump was even a candidate, Bush took four tries in May to disavow his brother’s Iraq war — despite knowing that the question was inevitable. He built a campaign operation so large and expensive that manager Danny Diaz, brought in later, was forced to make two rounds of significant cuts.

Once Trump labeled Bush “low-energy” in the late summer — despite Bush’s grueling campaign schedule and Florida reputation as a grinder — Bush struggled to respond. In their second debate in September, Bush repeatedly pushed Trump to apologize to Bush's wife for suggesting her Mexican heritage influenced his immigration views. Trump called her a “lovely woman” but never said sorry.

“Trump kind of took his lunch money,” said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University pollster backing Rubio. He pinpointed Bush’s fall to his failure to capitalize on the few weeks when it looked as if the GOP contest had come down to Trump vs. Bush.

Trump kind of took his lunch money.

Dario Moreno, a Marco Rubio backer, on Jeb Bush

By the next debate in October, Bush had set his sights on Rubio, his one-time protégé, for missing work in the Senate. But Bush’s rebuke appeared half-hearted, and Rubio got the better of him.

The best moments of Bush’s candidacy came early. By the end of January, he had flexed enough muscle — and locked in enough staffers and consultants — to keep Mitt Romney from running again. In February, Bush mostly held his own in front of a hostile audience, the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Maryland.

Bush’s single best day, the people interviewed for this story unanimously agreed, was his kickoff speech, delivered forcefully to a packed auditorium June 15 at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus. The place felt like a Latin-infused party, with live music and Spanish speakers (both of which helped minimize an interruption by immigration activists). Bush had practiced, and it showed.

Another highlight: the big reveal of Bush’s political cash. As of the end of June, Right to Rise had amassed a stunning $103 million, which, on top of the $11 million Bush had raised for his campaign, gave him the deepest pockets in the race. The figure has kept Bush donors, many of them heavily invested in his candidacy, from bolting.

“People are going to get beyond the soundbites at some point,” said Rodney Barreto of Coral Gables, who attended Bush’s donor retreat at the Biltmore Hotel earlier this month. “I tell people often, ‘Donald Trump is the Kim Kardashian of politics.’ At some point, we’ll get over that.”

Some Bush aides privately admit the candidate, who last ran for office in 2002, was rusty, and the campaign was unprepared for the Trump phenomenon. Since then, more staff has moved to early states. Bush has shown notable improvement behind the microphone since hiring a media coach and image consultant. He gave a well-received national-defense speech days after the Paris terrorist attacks.

Yet all that mattered little to a Republican focus group of past and current Trump supporters held last week by pollster Frank Luntz last week in Alexandria, Virginia.

Luntz himself forgot to name Bush as a Trump alternative. When the group realized the omission, Luntz asked how many of the 28 voters would pick Bush as their second choice.

“Zero,” he said, as no hands were raised.

McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Alexandria.

Tuesday’s Republican primary debate

The fifth GOP presidential debate will take place Tuesday at The Venetian in Las Vegas. It will be aired by CNN and Salem Radio.

Four candidates will take the stage at 6 p.m.: Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Nine candidates will face off at 8:30 p.m.: businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

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