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Opinion How Jeb Bush can turn around his campaign

Donald Trump and Jeb Bush take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate last month at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
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If not for Hillary Clinton’s and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s atrocious summer, Jeb Bush’s declining fortunes may have gotten more attention. In national and Iowa polling, Bush is generally 20 points or more behind Donald Trump and about even with less well-financed and less well-known competitors.

Bush’s team seems to be comforted by “fundamentals.” That is campaign-speak for: The best financed and steadier establishment candidate usually wins. But we have not seen Donald Trump or a 17-person field before, so it is hard for his supporters to take comfort in vague assurances “everything is okay” or “it always works out” (i.e. crackpots don’t win the GOP nomination).

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Moreover, the problem, his supporters fret, is not just Trump but Bush’s own performance. The good news is that Bush hasn’t flip-flopped on issues or tried to be something he is not. The bad news is that he too often seems defensive, irritated by Trump and lacking verve and focus. This is fixable.

This week Bush will roll out an economic plan that purportedly contains a tax reform proposal — one hopes it is a responsible and pro-growth plan not easily characterized as a bonanza for the rich. He should use his plan to emphasize his conservative bona fides and to attack Trump. Trump wants to raise taxes. Trump gave money to tax-hiking Democrats. Trump never stood up to demands to hike taxes and spending, nor has he gotten tax cuts passed. Trump is closer to Clinton than to Bush, and Bush needs to say so.

As he rolls put his plan, Bush cannot get distracted by Trump’s taunts. He certainly cannot grouse about being attacked. He needs to focus for a number of days on the plan, using that to remind voters of his dependable record.

After doing that for a while and in the lead-up to the Sept. 16 debate, Bush should zero in on one or more foreign policy issues, demonstrating he has never dabbled in isolationism nor taken a cavalier attitude toward Mexico, Russia or Iran. On this, Bush must grip his audience by the lapels, give voters a good shake and remind them that after one feckless commander in chief we cannot afford another one. He might begin with a denunciation of Trump for backing the Hillary Clinton approach to the Iran deal: Just “police” it. The problem, of course, is that by following the deal, Iran will go a long way toward achieving regional dominance and acquiring a nuclear weapon with an ballistic missile to deliver it. A nominee who fails to understand that means Republicans lose the issue in the election and the country loses its last chance to get rid of a deal former vice president Dick Cheney calls “madness.”

This is how Bush will need to proceed, methodically laying out the case for his candidacy issue by issue and ripping Trump’s ignorant and inconsistent stances. He should be attacking the idea that America needs a playground bully to make us great again. Trump is hot air and arm-waving, not someone who can lead a great country with calm and determination and who understands how to solve the country’s problems.

And most of all, Bush needs an impressive performance at the next debate. It is his chance — before what will likely be a huge audience — both to show that he is presidential and Trump is not. Pointing out Trump’s ignorance and unfitness for the presidency — or better yet, getting Trump to demonstrate his shortcomings and scary temperament — should be Bush’s goal each and every day, but most of all when he is up close to Trump in a live debate. If he cannot do that, a large question mark will loom over his campaign.