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Fight or flight? In New Hampshire, Jeb Bush's sagging campaign faces reckoning

Fight or flight? In New Hampshire, Jeb Bush's sagging campaign faces reckoning
Jeb Bush campaigned in New Hampshire on Thursday night alongside his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush. Tuesday's primary could be a last stand for the former Florida governor. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

When Jeb Bush entered the presidential race, he had a vision of a transformative candidacy that would remake the Republican Party, attracting young people and minorities — especially Latinos — with a vibrant new image based on solid conservative principles.

Now it has come to this: A dismal finish in the Iowa caucuses, a slog through New Hampshire and a growing wish in the party that Bush would step aside or, at least, tone down his campaign so he doesn't hurt someone more likely to win — such as Marco Rubio, who reflects much of what Bush hoped to accomplish when he ran.

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It is, he tells audiences, an exciting and joyful experience.

But for others watching, who know Bush and his family personally, or who witnessed his firm command as Florida's two-term governor, the spectacle is sad and disheartening to see. "It bothers people because they believe he deserves better," said Susan MacManus, who teaches political science at the University of South Florida and has closely followed Bush and his career for decades.

Stepping into a Bush campaign event can seem like a voyage to the past.

The family lineage is evident even without the ritual invocation of his mother — who campaigned alongside Bush in New Hampshire on Thursday night — his father and, sometimes, his oldest brother, both former president. There is the awkward syntax, the preppy manner and, above all, the unfashionable reverence for elected office and the sanctity of the political process.

Noting that businessman Donald Trump has used profanity three times in a recent speech — Bush had obviously counted — he insisted, "Look, I'm no fuddy-duddy. But this should be at least [PG]-rated. I mean, we're running for president of the United States. There are children listening to this stuff!"

The issues he talks about — term limits, a balanced-budget amendment — were moldy when his brother sought the White House 16 years ago and some of his language can sound oddly old-fashioned as he warns against abusing a president's executive powers, "Oh, my goodness gracious!" or throws a session open to questions with an exuberant, "Give me some doozies!"

There is a hopeful Bush scenario in New Hampshire: a strong finish in Tuesday's primary, which sends him roaring into the next contest in South Carolina, where he emerges as the favorite of those in the Republican Party desperate to stop the insurgencies of Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

It seems improbable, however.

New Hampshire rescued Bush's father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, after he stumbled in Iowa in 1988. The state tripped up his older brother, the front-running George W. Bush, and almost cost him the GOP nomination to a surging John McCain in 2000.

This time, though, Jeb Bush rests far back among the also-rans, easily overlooked but for the bombardment of TV and radio advertisements savaging Trump and, especially, Florida Sen. Rubio, a former protégé-turned-campaign-

nemesis.

The onslaught has angered many Republicans, including lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who see it as gratuitous, hopeless and, worse, potentially damaging to a candidate some have started to see as their best general election candidate after Rubio's strong third-place finish Monday night in Iowa. Bush appears unmoved.

"Guess what? This is not beanbag," he said when a woman at a Laconia Town Hall meeting complained about the pile of attack mailers she has received from a pro-Bush political action committee, which has spent tens of millions of dollars attacking Rubio. "If you think it's ugly right now, wait till you get to the general election."

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With an edge to his voice, Bush offered this unsolicited advice to Rubio, who has complained about the barrage of negativity: "Get over it, man. This is politics."

The former governor is 62, older than the 44-year-old Rubio but younger than Trump and both of the two Democrats running for president.

In many ways, though, Bush seems beyond his age, like a candidate from an earlier time — one that was politically kinder and gentler, to use his father's phrase, and more like when he last ran for office, for reelection in Florida in 1998.

"Jeb and his team underestimated the difference from politics from 15 years ago, when he got out," said a Bush family confidant, who agreed to speak but only anonymously to stay in their good graces. "No one used the word 'liar.' Nobody called people 'stupid,' or said the president was dumb. You'd get killed. The whole tone of language has changed because of texting, because of social media, because of reality TV."

Perhaps Bush's greatest political misfortune, though, is seeming like a voice of substance and seriousness at a time many in the GOP prefer more animal instincts.

Nothing seems to energize Bush more than a rigorous discussion of education policy, or his plan to revamp Social Security. But as Bush went on at length in Laconia, at a resort on Lake Winnipesaukee, the crowd of 125 or so sat mute, and the only sound was the whoosh of the ventilation system in a hotel function room.

The next day in Pittsfield, at a plant that makes clothing for firefighters, Bush's accompaniment was the hum of refrigerator cases in an employee break room. When he finished outlining a plan to reform the welfare system, he asked his questioner, a troubled single mother, what she thought of his response.

"Yeah?" she said, with uncertainty.

"I'll take that as a yes," Bush replied with a smile.

Follow @markzbarabak for national & California politics

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