DES MOINES — Jeb Bush stepped onto the fabled soapbox under a broiling sun at the Iowa State Fair here Friday and offered himself to voters as a sober adult campaigning in a summer of anger — a reformer, a consensus-builder, a competent executive who would roll up his sleeves and fix things.
"I’m tired of the divides," the former Florida governor said. "I campaign the way that I would govern — out amongst everybody, no rope lines, totally out in the open."
Then the fairgoers started asking Bush questions. They asked about the legacy of his brother, a former president. And his father, another former president. And his foreign policy adviser, Paul Wolfowitz, architect of his brother’s Iraq war. And about the war itself. And about the Common Core educational standards that have become a lightening rod for Bush with conservatives.
"The term Common Core is so darn poisonous I don’t even know what that means," Bush replied. "So here’s what I’m for: I’m for higher standards — state created, locally implemented where the federal government has no role in the creation of standards, content or curriculum."
Bush parried the questions with ease and energy, appearing to avoid the kind of gaffes that have plagued other candidates at the soapbox, which is sponsored by The Des Moines Register. In 2011, after all, Mitt Romney stood on the same stage and declared, "Corporations are people" -- a line that dogged him seemingly forever.
The candidate went on to shake hands, flip pork chops and down a beer (at 10:45 a.m.). He had arrived at the fair at 8 a.m. and toured exhibits with Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Republicans. He broke a sweat as he wandered the fairgrounds, but tried to enjoy himself. He tore into a deep-fried Snickers — "a Snickers the way it should be," he said — doused in powdered sugar before he took the stage.
But the line of questioning at the soapbox underscored the vulnerabilities Bush faces in the Republican nominating contest, especially here in Iowa, where he is mired in the single digits in recent polls, far behind front-runner Donald Trump and other candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
When a reporter asked Bush to explain why he came in seventh in this week’s CNN-ORC poll with only 4 percent of the vote, Bush said "polls are irrelevant."
"During the 10 days of the State Fair, there will be people moving up and moving down," Bush said. "It’s always been that way. I’ll remind you that my dad in 1980 was probably an asterisk at this point. And last time around, there were candidates that were winning at this point that never even made it to the starting line."
Later in the morning, Bush stopped by a stand where fair goers drop corn kernels in the glass jars of their favorite candidates, another reporter asked why Trump’s jar had so many kernels. Bush replied to check back this winter, when the caucuses draw near. As Bush donned a red apron and flipped pork chops with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), hog farmer Carl Owens stood off to the side taking in the scene.
"I don’t know if he’s like his brother and dad or not," Owens, 59, said. "I wasn’t too happy with them. Mr. Bush, the last president, look at the mess he got the United States into over there where we shouldn’t have been. Kind of like the Vietnam War. We shouldn’t have been there."
Earlier, at the soapbox, someone asked Bush about Wolfowitz, one of former president George W. Bush’s top Iraq advisers whom Jeb Bush has named to his foreign policy advisory team. Bush expressed irritation with what he called "the parlor game" of focusing on Wolfowitz and other past Bush administration advisers who have resurfaced for this Bush campaign.
"If they’ve had any executive experience, they’ve had to deal with two Republican administrations," Bush said. "Who were the people who were presidents, the last two Republicans? I mean, this is kind of a tough game to be playing, to be honest with you. I’m my own person."
To Belinda Schlueter, a 56-year-old housewife who cheered Bush on at the fair, the candidate’s dynastic lineage is an attribute. "He’s gonna be our man because he’s presidential, he knows what’s going on," she said. "He comes from a family that actually knows what the country’s all about and how the office runs. We need somebody there that knows what they’re doing."
That’s a theme Bush tried to reinforce at the fair. He repeatedly cast himself as a competent executive, saying he fired under-performing bureaucrats as governor of Florida and would bring the same no-nonsense attitude to the federal government. He gave out his e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and encouraged fair goers to write to him with ideas.
"I got to be governor of a purple state, Florida," Bush said. "It’s not red like Texas, and it’s not blue like California. It’s right there in the middle, half a million more Democrats than Republicans. I was the most conservative governor in the state’s history, but I had a reformer’s heart."
Bush made no mention in his remarks of Trump, the billionaire celebrity who plans a theatrical arrival at the fairgrounds Saturday by private helicopter. But he nevertheless suggested a clear contrast in leadership style.
"I respect people that don’t agree with me," Bush said. "It’s okay to disagree with me. I don’t ascribe bad motives for people that disagree with me.
"Put aside your ideology," he added. "I hope you want a president that will roll up their sleeves and fix these broken systems for crying out loud to make sure that we serve the people."