Jeb Bush aims to set self apart from father, brother, rivals in New Hampshire

Not just another Bush? Jeb works to connect with New Hampshire voters as his own man

Scanning historic pictures of presidential candidates campaigning in the New Hampshire primary, Jeb Bush focused on two, saying they "bring back really fond memories."

"Guy over there. Guy over there," he said, pointing at an image of his brother George W. Bush smiling broadly at an outdoor rally, and another of his father, George H.W. Bush, mingling with supporters on the banks of a lake.

But that's as far as it goes. "I'm going to have to show my heart, show who I am, tell my story," the former Florida governor said of his expected run for president, speaking to hundreds of people Friday at the "Politics and Eggs" lecture series at St. Anselm College. "It's a little different than the story of my brother and my dad."

As Bush weighs his future, his family's successes and failures in New Hampshire loom large. A 1988 primary win by the elder Bush gave his campaign much-needed momentum. But New Hampshire turned on Bush's brother in the 2000 primary, becoming one of the few states that did not back the favorite in that competition.

For Jeb Bush, New Hampshire serves as a linchpin of his strategy. Sandwiched between contests in Iowa and South Carolina that draw large numbers of evangelical voters, New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary has served as a firewall of sorts for mainstream, center-right candidates such as Bush. The last two Republican nominees — Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 — both came in first place here after losing the Iowa caucuses to more socially conservative rivals.

"The more mainstream, sort of center of the party shows up in big numbers here," said New Hampshire's Republican National Committeeman Steve Duprey. "It's more favorable to candidates like Gov. Bush" and other centrist choices in the wide GOP field.

During a two-day swing through New Hampshire that ended Friday, Bush appeared relaxed, engaging with voters in the one-on-one interactions that the state's residents demand. He sketched out his story — meeting his wife, working in commercial real estate, and, as governor, improving Florida's schools and economy.

"I got to apply conservative principles in a way that made it possible for a whole lot of people to rise up," he said of his Florida tenure.

As president, Bush said, he would overhaul tax and regulatory policy, embrace a range of domestic energy plans including new offshore leases and fracking, fix the financial health of the nation's entitlement programs and strengthen the military.

He faced friendly crowds — and challenging questions. At a Republican forum in a Nashua hotel ballroom Friday afternoon, Bush was asked about his support for Common Core, the national educational standards that conservatives view as an intrusion by the federal government into state and local matters.

Bush said he supported higher standards and stronger assessment because more than half of high school graduates were not college- or career-ready, which he said was hampering the nation's economic growth. He noted that participation in Common Core was voluntary.

"We don't need the federal government involved in this at all," Bush said.

At a "Politics and Pie" gathering at the Snow Shoe Club in Concord on Thursday evening, scores of Republicans heard Bush confronted about another sore subject: changing the nation's immigration laws.

In response to a question, Bush said he would secure the border, increase the number of people who are allowed into the country to meet labor demands, decrease the number of spots opened for extended family of immigrants, and provide a pathway to legal residency for those who are in the country illegally. The last stance puts him at odds with much of the Republican Party.

"We have to deal with the 11 million people that are here, and you can't 'self-deport,'" Bush said, using a term Romney was criticized for in 2012. "That's just not an American value. You can't round up everybody.... It's just not practical, and the disruption would be chaotic for all of us."

Charles Pewitt, 46, responded, "I don't buy that!"

The Concord resident said he saw Bush's proposal as a sop to big business. "You're going to have a tough sell," Pewitt told Bush.

"Well, that's my job. My job is to not back down on my beliefs," Bush said, before thanking Pewitt for sharing his views. "Hopefully you liked some of the other stuff I said."

Another person questioned why two families were dominating the presidential contest, a reference to Bush and Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I have enough self-awareness to know that is a oddity," Bush said. It wasn't his goal, he joked, "to break a tie" between his family and that of father-and-son presidents John and John Quincy Adams.

"That really isn't my motivation, but I have to prove that," he said. "It's a serious question, and the campaign needs to be about the future, not the past."

Bush said he had three goals: to show that he cares about people, that he has proposals to help the nation "rise up again," and that he has the leadership skills to accomplish change.

"If I do that, the Bush dynasty thing and the Clinton-Bush deal, all that stuff subsides," Bush said. "That's my plan."

A strong showing in New Hampshire is crucial to that plan. As he has nationally, Bush has faced a recent challenge from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whose father, Ron Paul, placed second here in the 2012 primary, also has a strong base of support. All three men, and more than a dozen other potential candidates, were in the state for a two-day gathering in Nashua this week.

Voters watching Bush said that it was premature to decide whom to support in February's primary.

"I was impressed by his speech, [but] way too early. Way too early," Dave Cuzzi, 41, said after seeing Bush speak Friday in Manchester.

The Manchester resident said that to succeed, Bush would need to make his case again and again. "New Hampshire loves to knock off perceived front-runners and serve up humble pie," Cuzzi said. "I think he needs to continue to do more of what you saw today … connect with voters at the emotional level but show folks he has the substance to lead."

Bush, apparently in agreement, snapped pictures with voters at the Concord event and then contributed two Key lime pies from Joe's Stone Crab in Miami to a buffet table of sweets. He selected a slice of blueberry pie for himself, a violation of the strict Paleo diet that has helped him shed pounds in recent months.

"To hell with the diet!" Bush said, tucking into the pie.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSeema

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