As Jeb Bush attempted to reintroduce himself to presidential primary voters in New Hampshire this week, the former Florida governor had a problem: Many had already met him.
“There’s a whole negative air about Jeb amongst the people I know,” said Myrna Greene, a retired school secretary who chairs the New Boston Republican Committee.
Bush launched a “Jeb Can Fix It” tour intended to reboot his faltering presidential campaign in the crucial primary state after several missteps, notably a subpar debate performance. Bush has been to New Hampshire 17 times over the last two years, for a total of 30 days, according to P2016.org, which tracks candidates’ visits.
However, interviews with local Republican committee chairmen and activists suggest the tour is not dramatically reshaping his reputation there, though some still give him a shot to turn his campaign around before voters head to the polls Feb. 9. But with an unusually wide field of charismatic candidates from which to choose, many voters have moved on to others.
In most cases, local party rules prohibit the chairmen from endorsing candidates, but they often have spent time with the candidates and keep in frequent contact with the small state’s most active voters.
Greene said she has seen Bush in several town halls, and did not see the need to see him again this week.
David Starr, who heads the Northern Grafton County GOP committee, said he attended a Bush event in September at a ski shop, and did not see Bush giving voters a compelling reason to vote for him.
“He speaks well, but I don’t remember him pushing any policies or throwing out any of those red-meat phrases that the crowd would eat up,” Starr said. “He was bland.”
Starr, like others interviewed, seemed more eager to talk about Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, the outsiders who are captivating voters’ attention and scoring in the primary polls. Trump, though polarizing, is a continued subject of fascination. They also mentioned Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom are gaining in polls as Bush slides, including in a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Bush will have trouble winning over Trump or Carson voters, who seem committed to staying away from the establishment, said Jeff Brown, an attorney and retired fire chief who serves on the Rockingham County Republican board.
“He needs uncommitted people” and those supporting lower-tier candidates, Brown said.
Brown suggested Bush’s timing was off: “Four years ago, I wish he ran,” he said.
Since then, the party has moved right, and core Republicans still don’t see Bush as enough of a conservative.
“They just don’t like him,” said Gillian L'Eplattenier, who leads a committee covering three New Hampshire towns. “They think he’s too middle of the road. They think he’s a 'RINO,'” a Republican in name only.
Even the notion that Bush can rebound has taken on a new dimension. While a few months ago, he was seen as likely a front-runner to win the state outright, many activists now see the definition of a comeback in less ambitious terms.
To John Spottiswood, chairman of the Pelham Republican committee, a successful comeback would mean building enough of a showing in February’s primary to “stick around for another month,” rather than winning first place, which he sees as implausible.
Alan Glassman, who holds several positions including chairman of the Belknap County committee, was the most bullish on Bush's potential to recapture his luster in the Granite State. He attended one of Bush's events this week, a barbecue with former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), and found Bush “very animated and really into it,” a contrast to earlier appearances.
He said he believes the door has not shut on Bush: “Oh, gosh, no. I don’t think anybody’s been closed off here.”
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