CORALVILLE, IOWA — Here in Iowa and other states holding early presidential contests, Jeb Bush is saying one thing while the super PAC supporting him says something entirely different.
A new television ad by Right to Rise USA airing in early primary states shows Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) twisting in the wind on a weathervane as an announcer describes his shifting position on immigration reform.
“He ran for Senate saying he opposed amnesty,” it says. “Then he flipped and worked with liberal Chuck Schumer to co-author the path to citizenship bill.”
But out on the campaign trail, Bush rarely talks about Rubio — he’s more focused on Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
“I hope that you’ll get involved in our effort to defeat Donald Trump and to propel me forward,” Bush told voters at the public library here on Tuesday.
In a campaign cycle where dozens of super PACs have propped up to help one candidate or another, the disconnect between Bush and Right to Rise USA stands out because the candidate and his supporters confidently boasted that record sums raised by the group would help him blanket the airwaves and win.
But that’s not happening. In Iowa, Bush placed far behind Trump and other opponents with just 3 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday. In New Hampshire, Bush placed second behind Trump in a NH1 News poll released Friday, but other surveys in recent days there ranked Bush with as little as 4 percent support.
Right to Rise USA shattered fundraising records last summer by raising more than $100 million to spend on Bush’s behalf on advertising and outreach. As of Tuesday, Right to Rise had spent more than $61.2 million on television and digital advertising and direct mail, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission. Of that, more than $15 million has gone to ads that swipe at Bush’s rivals, the majority in the last 12 days.
By law a presidential candidate cannot coordinate ad spending with independent groups such as super PACs and Bush has cited those rules several times when asked about Right to Rise.
“I’m focused on my campaign; I can’t control what anyone else does,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “I can only control what I do, and I’m advocating my record and my detailed plan to fix the mess in Washington, D.C.”
While Right to Rise has trained its sights on Rubio, it hasn’t ignored other GOP rivals. Those familiar with the group’s plans say that the unprecedented nature of the 2016 campaign and its more than half-dozen reputable GOP contenders means the PAC can’t focus on just one competitor at any time.
So in New Hampshire, an ad by the PAC contrasted Bush’s gubernatorial record with the tenures of New Jersey Gov. Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Another ad called out Bush’s attacks on Trump at a December debate. Yet another ad that aired in New Hampshire questioned whether Trump, Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) could sit in the Oval Office and make tough decisions.
Meanwhile, Bush keeps focused on Trump.
He told about 200 people at a firearms manufacturing facility in Grinnell on Tuesday that Trump “is a jerk because he disparages POWs, like John McCain, saying he’s not a hero because he got caught. He is a jerk when he disparages women. And he is a jerk when he disparages people with disabilities.”
In the past week, Bush has tried out several different ways of talking about Trump. In Meredith, N.H., last Wednesday, he complimented Trump for his business prowess and refusal to be politically correct before explaining why he calls the front-runner a “jerk.” The next day in Londonderry, N.H., Bush more briefly praised Trump before raising doubts about his understanding of foreign affairs. A few hours later he insisted several times to radio host Hugh Hewitt that Trump will not win the GOP presidential nomination. But shortly after the interview aired, Bush warned nearly 400 people in Peterborough, N.H., that “if Donald Trump wins the nomination — and he might – Hillary Clinton will beat him like a drum.”
In the weathervane ad, the announcer calls Rubio “just another Washington politician you can’t trust.” It adds that Bush is “a leader, so you always know where he stands.”
A separate video that Right to Rise is targeting at Republican Facebook and Instagram users in the early contest states mocks Rubio’s decision to wear a pair of fashionable black boots last week on the campaign trail.
Onscreen, the legs of a man in a dark suit and black boots is dancing while a woman sings a song set to the tune of the 1966 Nancy Sinatra hit, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.”
“These boots are made for flippin’ and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days, young Marco’s gonna flip flop flip on you,” she sings.
Another part of the group’s strategy is helping with organizing efforts. On Tuesday in Iowa, people who said they were with Right to Rise handed out red “JEB” lawn signs and orange placards touting Bush’s gun rights record.
Al Hoffman, a former Bush ambassador and developer in Florida who has given the super PAC $1 million, expressed confidence that the group was having an impact, saying he has seen signs that Bush is moving up in the polls in New Hampshire.
“My assessment — all good,” Hoffman wrote in an email, adding: “There is enough to finish and win.”
But another donor, who also requested anonymity, warned that the PAC’s focus on Rubio could be risky given that so many Bush supporters also like the senator.
“What they’re probably doing is trying to ensure that Marco does not run away with the establishment lane,” the donor said, adding: “Nothing else we’ve done has worked, why not try this?”
Paul Lindsay, a Right to Rise USA spokesman, wrote in an email, “Every candidate for president should be willing to face scrutiny over their position on issues. Or, in the case of Marco Rubio, his many different positions on issues like immigration, cap and trade, Iran and others.”
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in a statement that “Jeb Bush and his establishment allies are trying to buy this election and they know Marco is standing in their way. That’s why their attacks grow more desperate by the day. When Marco is president, there will be no amnesty and we will secure the border. Period.”
Bush himself hasn’t targeted Rubio directly since a GOP debate in October, when Bush admonished his former protege for failing to show up for work in Washington. But the attack backfired when Rubio snapped back: “Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you.”
On Tuesday in Coralville, a woman asked Bush about his recent attacks on Rubio.
“Marco is my friend. He’s my friend. And what has been said by our campaign I stand by completely,” he said. “Everybody’s record will be scrutinized, trust me. My record has been scrutinized like nobody’s business,” he said.
Later, he told reporters that “if you’ve got a problem with Rubio, why don’t you ask him about his ad about Christie. I saw that in New Hampshire. That’s a zinger.”
Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.