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Jeb Bush struggles to win hearts in New Hampshire ahead of primary critical to his campaign

AP, AFP-JIJI

Jeb Bush was once believed to be a virtual shoo-in for the Republican nomination in a crowded field of political newcomers and outsiders. But ahead of New Hampshire’s primary election in the coming week, he is doing anything he can to keep his flagging campaign on the rails.

He is begging some for votes and bear-hugging others who say they will consider voting for him in the second primary in the national election process. This past week, he whispered, “Please clap” after delivering a commanding speech about leadership — a phrase that has since gone viral on social media.

In New Hampshire, he has been joined by his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, who is working to convince voters that her son is “decent and honest.”

But Bush is ultimately banking on his experience as a businessman and former Florida governor to convince voters that he is best suited for the Oval Office, arguing that the three top finishers in the Iowa caucuses — Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio — aren’t up to the job.

Rubio has tagged Bush “desperate,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called him “fake” and Trump infamously labeled Bush a “low-energy” loser whose supporters are spending mountains of money to no avail.

“I wouldn’t say ‘desperation,’ but there’s serious concern” in the Bush camp, said professor Linda Fowler of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, an expert on U.S. elections.

Mired in single-digit support, squeezed into a crowded establishment lane with two governors — Christie and Ohio’s John Kasich — and with his measured tone overwhelmed by the loud rhetoric of the 2016 presidential race, Bush faces a steep climb out of irrelevance.

He is running fifth in New Hampshire, at 9.7 percent, but polls at just half that nationally, according to the latest RealClearPolitics poll averages.

“I think the press in a way have almost killed Jeb’s campaign,” said David Stotler, a teacher from Sutton, New Hampshire. “I think on the news he plays well to these small audiences. But for the debate stage and the television audience, I don’t think he has the killer instinct.”

Bush was to step back onto the stage Saturday for the last Republican debate before the primary — potentially crucial, as the latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll says a third of likely Republican voters could still change their mind.

But many observers say Bush has an extremely tough battle ahead of him. It is “the end of the road for the Bush dynasty” if he can’t pull out a second-place finish in New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, said Boston University political scientist Tom Whalen.

Bush’s campaign began 2016 with less than $7.6 million in the bank — less than what Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had available. But his well-financed super PAC, an outside funding group that can accept limited donations, had plenty of cash left to burn. Right to Rise, which attracted million-dollar checks from dozens of donors, started the year with roughly half of the $118 million it had amassed in 2015.

Early preference polls do not bode well. Voters in New Hampshire are notoriously late deciders, but even some of those gathered at Bush events — he has done more than 90 town halls — say they have their sights set on others.

At his town hall events, Bush carefully answers every question, often in detail, describing himself a proud “policy wonk.” He also makes it a point, without being asked, to talk about his famous political family, embracing the legacy of his father, George H.W. Bush, and older brother, George W. Bush.

“I’m proud of my dad. I’m proud of my brother. I’m proud of being a Bush,” he told a large crowd Thursday night in Derry.