BLUFFTON, S.C. — Everybody take a deep breath. This thing is far from over.
That's the message Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush brought with him to South Carolina on Wednesday, a day after placing fourth in the New Hampshire primary.
Asked by reporters what he thought of the results, Bush said that New Hampshire voters "pushed the pause button. The coronation after a third-place finish — looks like they canceled it. So, everybody’s going to have to make their case. It’s kind of a re-validation of what the primaries are about. I’m excited about being here. The field will likely narrow and as it narrows, we’ll have more of a consolidation as it always has been."
The "coronation" refers to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who placed fifth in New Hampshire even though his team was suggesting after his third-place finish in Iowa that the Republican race had narrowed to a three-man race between the senator, front-runner Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
But the Bush team dismissed such talk throughout the course of the New Hampshire contest and after Tuesday night's results, the campaign circulated talking points to supporters saying that Rubio has "no respect for the nomination process and expects this to be a coronation."
And Bush talked of a narrowing GOP field just about an hour before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced plans to suspend his presidential bid.
Bush also dismissed suggestions Wednesday that he might tweak his message to appeal to a more conservative electorate in the deep south.
"No, come on brother, you know I don’t change what I say," he told reporters. "I am who I am, 62 years old, soon to be 63, I’m not going to change who I am or what I say. I’ll say the same thing to every group."
Bush turns 63 on Thursday and is scheduled to make campaign appearances with his wife, three grown children and four grandchildren.
He held his first event of the 10-day fight in South Carolina at a retirement community here. Speaking in a pavilion packed with about 400 people — mostly senior citizens shivering through cooler-than-normal temperatures — Bush said that "South Carolina has always been good to the Bushes in the past and I’m hoping and praying it will be again."
He once again attacked Trump by questioning his temperament and judgment. When a man asked what he thought of Trump's vow to run the country like a business, Bush said that "The problem with Trump is he went bankrupt four times. And he says that’s a victory because he used the laws to advantage. Not so hot for the workers of those businesses who got laid off. We didn’t need a president who thinks it’s a victory to go bankrupt."
When another man persisted in questioning Bush about Social Security, the candidate retorted by saying, “I’m giving you a reality-based answer, not a reality TV answer.”
The Bush team feels especially bullish about his chances in a state that rewarded George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush with critical primary wins in the past. In the coming days, George W. Bush is expected to make appearances here for his brother and the campaign is now airing a radio ad starring the former president. A super PAC backing Bush's bid is also airing a television ad starring the former president.
Most of all, Bush loyalists believe he will be able to easily take on John Kasich, the Ohio governor who placed second in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
Will Weatherford, a former Florida House speaker, said that Bush goes into South Carolina “with a tremendous amount of momentum." Kasich, he said "has no money, has no infrastructure and is going to run into a brick wall in South Carolina. It's not going to be favorable to his liberal policies.”
Senior Bush aides doubt that Kasich will be able to string together the kind of coalition that rewarded him Tuesday night. In New Hampshire, Kasich relied on a mix of moderate Republicans and independents in the open party primary. South Carolina's is a contest closed only to Republicans.
"To win the Republican nomination, you have to win with Republicans, you can’t do it with Democratic-leaning independents who are just bored by the Democratic primary," said one senior Bush aide, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about campaign strategy. "You have to be able to win Republicans."