Nibbling a deep-fried Snickers. Sipping a mid-morning beer. Flipping pork chops on the grill. Taking questions from voters while standing near hay bales in the muggy Iowa summer.
Presidential candidate Jeb Bush took a break from his Paleo diet and hit all the traditional marks as he campaigned Friday at the Iowa State Fair, a massive festival underway in the state that holds the first nominating contest in the nation.
Bush is struggling here, and is in seventh place with the support of 5% of Iowa Republican voters in a CNN/ORC poll released earlier this week. That’s 17 points behind front-runner Donald Trump, who plans to land at the fair Saturday in a helicopter.
Bush, who has referred to himself as the tortoise in the race for the GOP nomination, brushed aside the polls as “irrelevant.”
“I’ll remind you that my dad in 1980 was probably an asterisk at this point,” Bush told reporters in front of the grandstand. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, won the Iowa caucuses in 1980 but ultimately lost the nomination.
“And last time around, there were candidates that were winning at this point that never even made it to the starting line,” he said. “This is an all-in state. You’ve got to get organized, you’ve got to get people to commit to attending the caucuses, recruiting others to go to the caucuses. You got to go campaign.”
Wearing cowboy boots embroidered with his name, Bush wandered around the fairgrounds accompanied at various times by the state’s top elected officials – Gov. Terry Branstad and Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. All are neutral and have said they would host all of the GOP candidates.
Bush, who spent much of the summer fundraising, is increasingly active on the stump.
“This is the fun part, the give and take is what politics should be about,” he said. “If you don’t have the courage of your convictions and are willing to have a dialogue with people who disagree with you, how are you going to deal with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin?”
Bush addressed hundreds of fairgoers at the Des Moines Register Soapbox, where each candidate is offered 20 minutes of time on the stage. It’s a potentially dangerous setting because of the unscripted format. In the last presidential election, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney answered a heckler with the infamous line, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Bush did not face protesters, as he did at a Wednesday appearance in North Las Vegas. But he did take some challenging questions from voters, including one asking if he was being advised by Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of Defense.
Bush said he was, and then noted that given that the past two Republican presidential administrations were those of his father and his brother, it’s not surprising that many of his advisers counseled them.
“This game, the parlor game that’s played, you know, where you have 25, 30 or 40 people that are helping you with foreign policy, and if they have any executive experience, they’ve had to deal with two Republican administrations -- who were the people that were presidents, the last two Republican?” Bush said.
When another voter floated the idea of a presidential youth council, Bush responded that that was a great idea and gave out his email address so the man could describe his proposal.