Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush stood in the home of a Dallas fundraiser in mid-November and confidently declared: "Come December 15, [Donald] Trump will be in decline."
Today is Dec. 15, and unless you count two recent polls that showed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) leading in Iowa, Trump still tops the GOP presidential campaign field. In fact, by several measures he's surging — there's no sign of decline.
The New York businessman earned 38 percent support in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday. That's an increase for Trump from previous Post-ABC polls, his highest mark in the survey's history and more than double the support of his nearest opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Trump now has a better than 2-to-1 lead over Cruz, who is at 15 percent, a doubling of his support since last month. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson are tied for third with 12 percent.
Bush, meanwhile, sits in fourth place, with 5 percent.
On Monday, Trump earned 41 percent support in a Monmouth University poll of Republicans nationwide. That was nearly triple that of Cruz, who had 14 percent. Bush earned 3 percent. Several other surveys of Republicans nationally or in early primary states give Trump wide leads, despite his recent proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from the United States due to security concerns.
All of this deeply frustrates Bush, who has focused intensely on national security, foreign policy and questions of competence in the weeks since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. On the trail and in interviews, he's calling Trump "unserious" and ill-equipped for the Oval Office. He expresses confidence that early-state primary voters will reset the focus of the race by voting for someone other than the New York businessman. And last week, he complained about Trump-related questions from reporters.
At a town hall meeting in Hooksett, N.H., he recalled an earlier event with voters in Manchester, where people had asked "not a single process question. Donald Trump’s name wasn’t mentioned. Then I had a press gaggle. There wasn’t a single question that wasn’t about Donald Trump. That’s the world we’re in — the pundits are talking about this and obsessed about it, but people actually have real questions about real things and real concerns."
People might have real questions and real concerns, but in New Hampshire, Bush hasn't moved the needle: Trump had a 19-point edge over Bush in a WBUR poll of New Hampshire Republicans released last week.
Later in Milford, N.H., Bush told about 200 people that the presidencies of his father, George H.W. Bush, and brother, George W. Bush, give him a unique advantage. He told about 200 people that he's the best-equipped Republican candidate to lead the country and deal with national security "based on my life experience and having a front row seat watching history unfold — perhaps it being a slight advantage."
Rarely has Bush suggested that his family connections could help him serve as president.
But the Post-ABC poll and other surveys from early primary states continue to give Trump the edge on questions about who's best equipped to serve as commander-in-chief, deal with terrorist attacks and who is the stronger leader.
Al Cardenas, a close Bush friend and generous donor, conceded that "the field predicted a year ago was quite different than it turned out to be."
"With the main competition predictably coming from senators Cruz, Rubio and [Rand] Paul as well as [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker, the landscape was recognizable and time tested strategies seemed poised to get the job done and accomplish our November driven mission," he said in an email. "With the unexpected entries of John Kasich, Ben Carson, Donald Trump and to a lesser surprise Chris Christie, the assumptions at the start of the race required significant recalibration; making it more challenging to stay the course towards a general election victory."
But, Cardenas added, Bush has accomplished all of his initial benchmarks in fundraising, building a political organization and rolling out comprehensive policy proposals.
"Can we still win this thing? The answer is yes," he said.
Aides declined to comment on Bush's preparations for Tuesday night's Republican debate in Las Vegas. He's held rehearsals with aides and planned to stay out of the public eye until appearing on CNN for the debate. Other donors, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about campaign strategy, said they've heard nothing about a fresh plan of attack on Trump or broader changes in strategy.
"Status quo. Have heard no changes," one major donor said.
"I’m super-worried for him," said another major donor, who has hosted fundraisers for Bush.
"We’ve got guys with no experience – junior senators, CEOs with marginal experience and marginal success and then you’ve got Jeb, who’s got a great track record as a governor," he said.
"We’ve turned this race into a popularity contest and we’ve turned it into a showmanship race. I get that," the donor added. "But God help us, we need someone who can also do that but also promulgate an effective policy that will affect the United States."
Bush's prediction in Dallas came at the home of fundraising bundlers Amy and Malone Mitchell in response to a question from someone in attendance.
"I'm just curious, when are you going to make a more aggressive attack on Donald Trump?" an unidentified man asked Bush. "It seems like in the last couple of debates — I mean, I'm your biggest fan, but at the same time it seems like there's not a lot of fight in you. I'm just curious, come December 15, is that a possibility?"
"Come December 15, Trump will be in decline," Bush said to applause.
Perhaps he can find solace in something George W. Bush said that night.
"What appears to be reality today will not be reality next February," the former president said in brief remarks before his brother. "These things go through cycles and the winner is going to be the person who is steadiest under fire, who has had the executive experience necessary to make tough decisions. Who has got a series of plans to deal with America's most pressing problems. The winner is going to be somebody who can appeal beyond the kind narrowness of some of the politics of today. The winner is going to be somebody who's competitive. The winner is going to be somebody who's tall."
Jeb Bush and Donald Trump are tall men. But Bush is taller — barely.