For Jeb Bush, It's Game On in South Carolina

For Jeb Bush, It's Game On in South Carolina
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- If the first-in-the-South primary is to be the most difficult one for Jeb Bush, consider the challenge accepted. 

At various campaign-like stops in the nation’s most conservative early voting state -- one where his views on immigration and education reform put him at odds with many primary voters -- Bush told voters, “I’ll be here a lot.”  

As he has done in recent swings through Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush presented himself as a conservative, consensus-building governor. But this time, he brought sharpened attacks against President Obama, an unpopular figure in South Carolina whom Bush characterized as a liberal responsible for dividing the country. 

It’s the president’s job to “reweave the web of civility and to improve the discourse,” Bush told reporters. “And this guy does not believe it’s his priority or mission to do that.” Bush said the president abandoned his campaign promise to unite a polarized country.  

It’s a void the former Florida governor, who called for a rebuilding of the nation’s center, would like to fill himself. 

“I’ve gotten tired of seeing the food fight -- never solving problems, always arguing, never trying to forge consensus,” he said at a fundraiser Tuesday for Republican state House lawmakers in downtown Columbia. Bush was introduced by House Speaker Jay Lucas, who noted that Bush drew “the biggest buzz” for party fundraising events so far. 

“We’re on the verge of being in the greatest time to be alive,” Bush said, citing a to-do list that includes simplifying the tax code, eliminating complicated regulations driven by Washington, embracing “the energy revolution in our midst” and making it easier for the middle class to rise up. “It will require conservative leadership -- it won’t require the other,” Bush said. “We’ve seen what happens when we allowed the progressive liberals to run wild.” 

Bush appeared earlier in the day with Gov. Nikki Haley, considered a rising party star who is popular in the state. Haley said she wouldn’t endorse anyone anytime soon, if at all, but said she is a fan of governors. She and Bush toured a domestic violence shelter for women in Cayce on Tuesday afternoon, and Bush praised Haley for exemplifying leadership. (Bush credited his wife, Columba, for highlighting the issue of domestic violence against women in Florida.) 

Also earlier in Bush’s busy day, he spoke to a coalition of chambers of commerce in Greenville, and toured a Christian school in Taylors. The former two-term governor will attend a GOP party breakfast in Myrtle Beach on Wednesday, followed by a private fundraising event in Charleston.

State GOP Chairman Matt Moore says the Palmetto State will be the “first full spectrum” test of candidates’ abilities to appeal to several types of conservative voters -- fiscal, social, evangelical, military -- all at once.  

“If Iowa is a test of organization and New Hampshire is a test of message, then South Carolina is a test of projectability,” Moore told RCP, noting that the state has a history of picking winners (except for Newt Gingrich in 2012). 

It helped propel the first presidential bids of Bush’s father and brother, but figures to be a greater challenge for Jeb. In his first stop through the state as a likely presidential candidate, he didn’t back away from his stances on immigration and a path to legal status, or shared standards for education. But he found ways to convey to primary voters here that we’re not so different, you and me.

“I happen to think conservative governance -- the way you’ve done it here and the way we did it in Florida -- will be helpful in Washington, D.C.,” Bush said at the Columbia fundraiser.  

With nearly another year to go until the primary, voters here are beginning to get a feel for the candidates.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, considered a top rival at this point in the campaign, is on Bush’s heels this week: He’s expected to make several campaign-like stops in the state on Thursday and Friday.  

State Rep. Dennis Carroll Moss, who came to see Bush in Columbia, said he hasn’t made up his mind about the 2016 race. “One that can win in November,” he told RCP when asked what kind of candidate his party should nominate this cycle. “A conservative, but somebody that can get along with both sides of the aisle. Somebody that people respect, who is conservative but understands both sides.” 

Many gathered to hear Bush Tuesday night seemed to agree about the importance of electability. “I think if we have to pick up that 20 percent in the middle, I think Bush is more capable with his ability to speak Spanish, his attitude about reaching out,” said Barbara Rush of Greenville. “He’s probably going to be able to reach that 20 percent, and that’s all that really counts.”  

But Rush, a longtime supporter of the Bush family, acknowledged that the bar for candidates among conservatives in the state is high, and the former governor’s support of Common Core -- which was repealed in South Carolina last week -- may be a challenge for him. “He’s just going to have to figure out where the cutoff, where the red line is with that issue … and make people understand how he sees it,” she said, noting that the Affordable Care Act has turned people off to such federal programs. 

Bush’s two-day test of the South Carolina waters appears to be just the first step in a long haul. “I’m excited to be here,” he told the group at the state House fundraiser. “If I get beyond the possibility of the consideration of running -- which is the terminology I’m kind of stuck in right now -- I’ll be here a lot.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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