Bush Courts N.H. Voters as Hearts Flutter for Trump

Bush Courts N.H. Voters as Hearts Flutter for Trump
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KEENE, N.H. —  Jeb Bush is the student at the science fair who spent months on his project, making charts and crafting an intricate display, only to be eclipsed by the kid a few tables over lighting stuff on fire.

And he can’t help but be annoyed when the little pyromaniac rubs it in.

During a town-hall gathering here this week, Bush helped to indulge this metaphor, calling himself “a nerdball” who knows and relishes policy.

But the base of his party isn’t especially interested in a nerdball. They want a fireball. And Donald Trump fills the bill in “the most spectacular” way, as he would unabashedly tell one and all.

Still, Bush insists the nerds will ultimately rule — that the summer love affair with Trump will be just that, and voters will warm up to the serious suitor by winter, when it counts.

“He’s been a Democrat longer than a Republican. I have fought for Republican and conservative causes all of my adult life,” Bush told reporters here Thursday. Eventually, Americans are “going to find that I’m going to be the guy that they’re going to vote for. And it’s a long haul, man.”

A long haul, indeed.

New Hampshire, with its moderate leanings and more subdued tone, was supposed to be fertile ground for Bush. But Trump-mania seems to have caught on here, too. The RealClearPolitics average shows Trump doubling Bush’s numbers in the Granite State as well as nationally. The businessman and reality television star has been relentless in attacking Bush -- who has dropped in the polls since the GOP debate earlier this month -- and deftly poked him in the eye here Wednesday night by hosting a competing event that eclipsed Bush’s in crowd size and energy.

The former Florida governor began campaigning as a “joyful tortoise,” but it’s clear now that Trump has gotten under his shell. Over the past couple of days, Bush has shifted gears to fight back against the new frontrunner’s attacks.

“You’re not going to win by being the largest dog in the room,” he said during an appearance at the Historical Society of Cheshire County, where he was asked questions on a range of issues including immigration reform, early childhood education and nutrition programs, Russia and Iran, whether he has crossover appeal and even whether he ever cried in office. (“You don’t have to be a liberal to care about people,” he said. And yes, he’s not afraid to cry: “Do you know my family? We’re like crybabies.”)

In many ways, Bush has become an underdog in this race — albeit a well-financed one.

“He’s running like an underdog, and that’s the mentality you need if you want to win,” says Jamie Burnett, a New Hampshire Republican strategist backing Bush. “He is the most consistent, most organized, most resourced and most substantive, but it will take him months -- and it should.”

Early on, before the race began in earnest, Bush was expected to clear the field, sweep up all the cash, and elevate the conversation. Instead, he now stands in the middle of his own town-halls striking back at the lead dog as his party debates birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment, thanks to Trump’s call for its repeal.

Bush opposes taking away birthright citizenship, telling a group during a diner stop earlier Wednesday in New London that the law allowed for people like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to become U.S. citizens. But he took heat later in the day when asked if he regretted using the controversial term “anchor babies,” used by Trump and others, when referring to immigrants coming to the United States illegally to bear children who will be citizens.  “I don’t,” he said. “You give me a better term and I’ll use it.”

Bush, who has advocated for comprehensive immigration reform and is the husband of a Mexican immigrant, said the conversation spurred by Trump has gone overboard: “I think we need to tone down the rhetoric a little bit.”

“We should be a little more focused on solving the problems and talking about ideas that matter, rather than just kind of coming in like a tidal wave and saying things that are just outrageous and don’t make sense,” he said, noting that Trump’s immigration proposals were costly, not conservative, and not realistic. “All of this stuff is to appeal to people’s anger and their angst, rather than have solutions to solve problems.”

But Bush has larger problems than Trump to contend with, here and elsewhere: his family. As the former two-term governor tries to establish himself as his own man, some voters seem unable to get past his last name. (George W. Bush sent out a fundraising letter to supporters on his brother’s behalf Thursday.) And even those who like him see why other voters would want a change. This is made especially difficult when those voters have several appealing options to choose from. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for example, has gained ground in New Hampshire.

“I’m not enthused about Jeb. The dynasty thing bothers me — it’s the same with Hillary,” said Joe Kennedy, who came to the town-hall in Keene, echoing the sentiments of others there. “And I don’t think he’s forceful enough. We need a forceful president.”

During campaign appearances in New Hampshire on Thursday, Bush made a point to say he was a “doer” and not a “talker” and that he wouldn’t use “bombastic” or “grandiose” language.  “I’ve got joy in my heart, not anger,” he said during a stop at McKenna’s Restaurant in New London.

That impressed Audrey Botnick, who came to the diner with her husband and holds the candidate and his family in high esteem. But, she said, “I think the Bush name is going to be a problem in terms of dynasties.”

If people could see him in person, as she did, they could change their minds, Botnick added.

Bush agrees, telling New Hampshire voters he plans to visit the state at least three times a month from now until the end of the campaign.

“He’s an introvert, so he is very focused and conscious of engaging people in a campaign. That’s his personality. I think when people come to see him, they come away identifying him as engaged,” says Tim Miller, the campaign’s communications director.

It worked with Margaret Doody, a New Hampshire resident who also met Bush at the diner, and who has been eyeing Kasich and Marco Rubio too. “I’m sold,” she said afterward. “He’s so much better in real life than he is on a television screen.”

But voters like Doody aren’t the same ones to whom Trump is appealing. “I would vote for Hillary before I would vote for Donald Trump,” she said. “And I would vote for, who’s the crazy guy — Ted Cruz? I’d vote for Ted Cruz before I vote for Trump.”

Though Trump isn’t necessarily pulling from Bush’s support, he is still making the terrain more difficult for him to compete. Additionally, several other candidates are staking their own claims on New Hampshire. There is a big crowd of candidates to emerge from in this early voting state.

While the campaign insiders don’t see Trump-mania dying down anytime soon, they believe a lot can change between now and when votes are actually cast in February. “I do think that there’s an open question right now as to how the polls match up with how people show up to actually vote in caucuses and primaries,” Miller says. “There’s a divide there.”

The candidate himself is looking forward to moving on, too. “Let’s go talk about this two months from now, three months from now -- and I hope you all are still around -- and I think what’s you’ll find is you will have forgotten what existed in August, whatever it is,  20th,” he told reporters about the Trump phenomenon. “When [Republicans] start realizing we need to win, I think it will look a lot different.”

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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