WASHINGTON – Jeb Bush’s U.S. presidential bid is boiling down to early voting New Hampshire, some associates say, while others envision his protracted battle for the Republican nomination stretching deep into the spring.
Either way, supporters and analysts agree it will be difficult for Bush, a former Florida governor and son and brother of two presidents, to emerge as the nominee given American conservatives’ current appetite for anti-establishment candidates and the roiling ethno-nationalism of erratic front-runner Donald Trump.
Bush launched his campaign as the prohibitive favorite, his main hurdle being overcoming foreign policies of his presidential brother George W. Bush.
Jeb’s team, and a supporting Super PAC, a fundraising entity allowed to raise an unlimited amount of money, raked in a stratospheric $100 million in early months.
Today his poll numbers are in single digits and other campaigns appear to count him out.
He is mocked relentlessly by Trump, who tweeted Friday that new figures showing his rival’s poor favorability were “not good news for Jeb Bush.”
Despite his command of the issues Bush has appeared stiff and frustrated at Republican debates.
In private, according to one major donor and acquaintance, Bush has expressed exasperation at the state of the race, and how a bullying tycoon with a tenuous grasp of foreign policy has commandeered the primaries.
“He’s said he can’t quite understand this phenomenon,” said the donor, who spoke under anonymity so he could discuss the campaign more freely.
It has been distressing, the donor said, for Bush “to see someone like Trump rewarded for so many intolerant, outrageous, false statements that he says all the time.”
With Bush running sixth out of 12 Republicans, averaging 3.3 percent in polls, his campaign reportedly has now cancelled television ads in Iowa, which votes on Feb. 1.
Instead he redeployed many staffers to New Hampshire to blanket the state until the Feb. 9 primary, members of his state leadership team said.
“I’ve now come to a recognition that New Hampshire is probably do or die for Jeb,” the donor said.
“I never would have thought that,” he added. “But he has put so many resources into New Hampshire, it’s like he’s pushing all the chips into the center of the table.”
Bush is not alone. Fellow establishment candidates like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich are crowding in for town-hall events as they make their stands in the all-important Granite State.
“It certainly doesn’t look wonderful for Jeb Bush,” observed Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University professor who has analyzed presidential races for 40 years.
“When you were supposed to be the establishment guy and now you’re languishing at the bottom of the polls with Mike Huckabee and a bunch of other losers, it’s tough.”
And yet Schmidt insisted a long-term path exists for Bush beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, provided he does not tank there.
Wins in those early states carry huge psychological boosts, but the primary race is about winning enough overall delegates to earn the nomination.
Schmidt notes that Republicans in several large states like New York, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which vote in March and April, and California and New Jersey in June, are more moderate and less likely to support Trump or today’s number two candidate, conservative Senator Ted Cruz.
“The Republican establishment is going apoplectic with both Trump and Cruz,” Schmidt said.
“If Bush is able to get some momentum and get his act together, he could go long.”
That change in dynamic could take several weeks to coalesce, said Schmidt, stressing that Bush’s large war chest would prove crucial down the road.
“In California it’s not a ground war, it’s an air war,” he explained. “It’s all television, and that’s expensive.”
New Hampshire state Representative Carlos Gonzalez, a Bush supporter, said he remained optimistic despite the poor polls.
“His game is up to par, and he’ll do better than expected,” Gonzalez said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s crunch time, because the whole primary season is very volatile.”
Meanwhile he and other observers said Bush’s team and SuperPAC Right to Rise ought to hit Trump even harder than they are presently doing.
Of the $99.3 million spent by independent groups on advertising in the campaign cycle up to Jan. 4, just 2 percent went to spots attacking Trump, according to a Huffington Post analysis.
Political consultant Stuart Stevens, who strategized for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, said going negative on Trump is exactly what Bush should have done from the start, instead of making the “terrible mistake” of also attacking establishment rivals.
“There is no shame in losing a presidential race,” Stevens said.
“But to run and lose and in the process end up helping the person who most represents everything you oppose in the Republican Party and public life, that would be a tragedy.”