Bush Tries to Connect Simply as "Jeb" in N.H. Visit

Bush Tries to Connect Simply as "Jeb" in N.H. Visit
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DERRY, N.H. — Halfway through Jeb Bush’s first campaign event in the Granite State as an official presidential candidate, a town-hall attendee joked that he has seen the former Florida governor three times already in his state, “so I’m just now starting to form an opinion about you.”

The audience and the candidate laughed at the commonly uttered allusion to how often and how intimately voters here get to know presidential candidates before making a decision about whom they will support in the nation’s first primary.

While Bush has one of the best-known surnames in the country, being the son and brother of presidents and all, his first stop through the key state of New Hampshire was about making a good first impression simply as “Jeb.”

Fresh off a successful launch of his campaign in Miami, he headed first to New Hampshire to pitch himself as a candidate with a record of economic achievement who wants to make the Republican Party more inclusive, and who has ideas about growing the economy and jobs, reforming the tax code, reducing the size and scope of government and combating terrorism.

New Hampshire could be a bright spot in Bush’s arduous road to Cleveland, where the GOP nomination will be officially bestowed next summer. Though his family has had a mixed history in the state, he holds a slight lead over the early field there and hopes to appeal to the state’s more moderate sensibilities and affinity for smaller government. But voters here are far from making up their minds just yet, as they expect to see many candidates stopping at similar venues during the coming seven-plus months.

Of course, Bush has been unofficially campaigning for president for roughly six months already (under the shield of a super PAC that allowed him to travel the country raising large sums of money for an eventual campaign) and has swung through New Hampshire several times, including a stop earlier this month.

But in his first event as a declared White House candidate, the former two-term governor seemed more comfortable and in command than during his campaign in waiting, which was marked by stumbles and perceived insecurities. He also appeared closer to finding the joy in campaigning he often talks about. When a woman with disabilities talked about overcoming her struggles, Bush walked over and gave her a hug.

Wearing a tie-less button-down shirt and gray slacks, Bush stood in the middle of 350 attendees at the Adams Memorial Oprah House for one of those classic New Hampshire town-hall gatherings, calling on participants himself and taking questions about the economy, national security, the Islamic State threat, campaign finance, and tax reform.

Over the next few months, Bush said he plans to lay out a tax reform proposal that would be “hopefully thoughtful and probably provocative” and advocated reforming entitlement programs, which he described as a “time bomb” in terms of their impact on the economy and spending.

Bush took opportunities to hit President Obama and the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. “The progressive agenda may sound good, and it’s alluring. But now we see what it looks like, and it’s ugly,” Bush said, arguing that Americans want to live a better life and have a shot at moving up.

Bush described ISIS as an asymmetric, “long-haul threat” and criticized the president for lacking a clear strategy in confronting the terrorist group. “Presidents create strategies,” he said. “We have to be all in.” He said that the U.S. should recognize it has a role to play in rebuilding the Iraqi military so it can fight on its own, and that Iranian influence should be pushed out of the region (he knocked the current administration for its stance in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear capabilities).

Bush, who has stumbled when asked whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq during his brother’s administration, has advocated embedding U.S. training forces with Iraqi troops to combat ISIS, and has criticized the president for the troop withdrawal that he believes created a vacuum in which the Islamic State flourished.

In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity before the town-hall event, Bush addressed immigration reform and Common Core, two controversial issues that could be problematic for him with GOP base voters.

Bush told Hannity that while he is for securing U.S. borders first, he believes immigrants here illegally should have some path to legal status—but not citizenship, as he has advocated in the past. Bush also said he would undo Obama’s executive order halting deportations, but would replace it with a policy that gave preferential treatment to so-called DREAMERs (children whose parents came here illegally). On the Common Core education standards, Bush said that education should be a local or state issue, but noted that 45 states voluntarily supported the program. He has also advocated for school choice.

Bush also told Hannity that he is for “traditional marriage” and that he hopes the Supreme Court will rule in favor of states deciding whether to make same-sex marriage legal, but that the U.S. shouldn’t discriminate. When asked during the town-hall meeting about religious freedom laws that are a point of contention in Indiana, Arkansas, and other states, Bush said we should protect religious freedoms but not create a society that is intolerant.

“If someone walks into flower shop and asks to buy flowers, we shouldn’t discriminate against them” based on their sexual orientation, Bush said. But he argued that vendors also have the “right of conscience” to decline to participate in an event that they believed violates their religious convictions.

Bush spent roughly an hour answering questions from the audience, trying to make an impression as a conservative governor from a purple state—one that is much more like New Hampshire than Texas, he said.

Trisha Burton, an artist from Concord and an independent voter, said that while she is scoping out the field and won’t make up her mind for a while, she came away from Bush’s first event impressed. “Jeb reminds me more of his dad than his brother, much more so in demeanor,” Burton said, noting she had voted for both Bushes and Obama. “He’s friendly and relaxed.” 

Outside, however, some Granite Staters had already formed a strong opinion of the candidate inside. A small group of protesters held up signs that read “Read My Lips, No New Bushes” (a reference to his father’s unkept tax pledge) and “Stop Common Core, Stop Jeb Now.”

“I would never vote for Hillary, not in my life. And I doubt I’d vote for Jeb. I’d rather not vote,” said Kathy Pesche, a homeschool teacher from Croydon holding one of the anti-Common Core signs. “We don’t need another Bush.” Pesche said she is interested in Scott Walker “because he’s destroying the unions.” But she also acknowledged that “I don’t like where he is on immigration—he goes back and forth.”

Leah Wolczko, a disability claims specialist from Manchester, held one of the “No New Bushes” signs outside the opera house and said her opposition stemmed from the Bush administration’s bailout of big banks as part of TARP. “I don’t want any more Bushes. I don’t want any more Clintons either, but I don’t see a lot of difference between the two. But I definitely don’t want a Bush on my side,” Wolczko said, identifying Rand Paul as her preferred candidate. Bushes are “not conservative. They make government bigger.”

Inside, however, many of the voters were taking it all in, knowing many, many candidates will swing through this and other such venues throughout the state. They’d have an opportunity to see Bush, and the others, again.

“Honey, look how big the field is. The difference between the various candidates is miniscule in many cases,” said Audrey Steves, a retiree from Derry who spends the winters in the Sunshine State, when asked whether she is leaning towards a candidate.

Donning a “Florida” baseball cap and a New England Patriots fanny pack, Steves said she had made her mind up about one candidate: “I wouldn’t vote for Obama’s secretary friend there because she follows [him] so closely.”

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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