Buoyed by the sight of family members and old friends, Bush used a visual aid in speaking about the current state of the Republican race.
"The party that I believe in..." he said as he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a red "Reagan Bush '84" T-shirt. Getting his point, the crowd drowned him out with cheers.
Since the start of the year, Bush has held political events in New Hampshire and Florida most often, according to a Washington Post review of his schedule. But winning the GOP nomination will require time spent in less familiar places, such as Iowa, where he earned just 3 percent support in a poll released Sunday. On Wednesday night, he will be in one of the most awkward positions of all, next to businessman Donald Trump at the second GOP presidential debate.
"Mr. Trump is the front-runner, so he’ll get a lot of attention in the debate, I’m sure," Bush conceded last week while campaigning in Exeter, N.H.
He joked that "I’m just going to be my boring normal self" in the next debate — before spending the rest of the day convincing supporters and skeptics that he will perform strongly.
He reminded reporters that when he was Florida governor, his security detail nicknamed him "Ever-Ready."
"I'm still ever-ready. I’ll be ready for the debate, and, more importantly, I have the energy to serve and it’s not about me," he said.
Later that night at a school gymnasium in Salem, N.H., he told about 200 people: "I’ll campaign hard, if someone comes at me — bam! — I’ll come back at them." He smacked his hands for emphasis. "I’ll campaign hard. It’s not about me. It’s not about the loud voices on the stage. It’s not about people running."
Issues of vitality have plagued Bush for weeks as Trump has repeatedly mocked him as "low-energy," boring, and ill-suited for the presidency because of his family name. The relentless attacks have made the past several weeks especially humbling for Bush. He has faced tougher scrutiny from reporters eager for him to volley back at Trump's barbs while maintaining a grueling fundraising schedule that has taken him to cities such as Birmingham, Ala., and Salt Lake City. The relentless pace has resulted in a sometimes-melancholy delivery to voters or ornery exchanges with reporters.
Since the first face-to-face encounter with Trump, Bush's once-dominant status has been erased. His numbers peaked at nearly 17 percent nationally in mid-July, but they were cut in half by last week to just 8.3 percent, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls frequently cited by campaigns. In New Hampshire, a CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday put him in a tie for fifth place, far behind Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.
The drop also resulted in what top donors have hinted was a less-than-anticipated haul in fundraising during August, forcing the campaign to tighten its spending. While the changes affected mostly senior campaign aides, the most notable change is that Bush, who spent most of the year traveling on private jets to campaign events, has started flying commercial airliners more often, as he did Friday.
Preparations for the next debate have included rehearsals fitted into a tight schedule of campaign rallies and fundraisers. In late August, after a campaign event at a convention center in Pensacola, Fla., he spent a few hours rehearsing with aides at a Hyatt hotel next to the city airport.
Al Cardenas, a longtime friend and generous donor, said that at the debate, "Jeb's job is not to win the debate but to do well by building on his record of conservative accomplishment."
"He entered this race with burdens no else had to share," Cardenas said in an e-mail. "The so called Bush identity and a misperception on his positions on education and immigration. So, while others entered the race with a mostly blank canvas, he has had to erase a biased and incorrect one before he can gain traction amongst a conservative audience which will largely decide his fate."
One tactic Bush might employ Wednesday night is mockery. Despite losing to Trump, he has adopted a much more dismissive attitude about his rival, still believing — as his top aides certainly do — that most Republican voters will eventually realize that the New York businessman can't be taken seriously.
At that event in Salem on Thursday night, he decried "the loud voices that don’t have a plan."
"Let’s talk about Donald Trump," he said. "As Stephen Colbert said, 'Let’s talk about the big orange elephant in the room.'"
The crowd laughed, so Bush continued: "That’s humor, Donald, don’t tweet. Please. Please. Please. Go to sleep."
Trump often sends out his harshest Twitter attacks late at night, Bush said, meaning that his phone starts vibrating in the middle of the night with notifications about the latest insults.
Bush concluded: "I think, over time, people are going to want people that sit behind the big desk who can actually do it, that’s not a creature of Washington, that has ideas that are tangible."
The candidate was well-received during one of his more spirited town hall events to date. He lingered for about 20 minutes to shake hands and pose for photos and even engaged more than usual with the professional autograph collectors who goad him to sign baseballs and photos.
"How's that for high energy?" he asked, showing off a photo from his June campaign kickoff.
Flipping to an older image from when he was nearly 40 pounds heavier, he said: "This was low-energy."
"This was a long time ago," he said as he signed one of the last photos. "Fat Jeb."