At a weekend conference in Miami, fundraisers questioned the direction of the campaign and worried it’s too late for a rebound. During a foreign policy speech in Washington, people slipped out of the room to go see rival Chris Christie instead. The jebbush.com domain was redirected to Donald Trump’s website because the Bush campaign failed to lock it down.
And on the campaign trail, the press corps following the former Florida governor is dwindling and focused mostly on his terrible polling numbers, now mired in the low single digits. While front-runner Trump packs arenas with thousands, fifth-place Bush rarely musters more than a couple hundred at any given stop.
At an event in Newton, Iowa, last week, Bush sounded almost incredulous at his position in the race.
“Who has the leadership skills to actually make the tough decisions to fix the things that aren’t working right now that are holding people back?” Bush said in front of the crowd of about 100. “And who has the ideas going forward that will allow us to rise up as a nation?”
“And finally,” he added, “who can beat Hillary Clinton for crying out loud?”
The crowd applauded. A few minutes later, an older gentlemen in the back nodded off.
No presidential candidate named Bush has been in this position before. George H.W. Bush lost his 1980 bid for president, but never slipped as low as Jeb Bush has. After an early setback in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush rebounded and cleared the GOP field.
It doesn’t show in the polls, but Bush has become a stronger campaigner — maintaining a grueling schedule of early morning coffee meet-and-greets, interviews with small-town television reporters and nighttime town halls and speeches. And he still has more money than the rest of the field, traveling in a packed SUV with a bodyguard, a personal aide, a press spokesperson and a campaign videographer. He seems more comfortable in his own skin.
But no matter how hard he tries, nothing has helped reverse his slide.
“We have had success raising money. I’ve had success connecting with crowds — you guys have been there, I’m not making this stuff up,” Bush told reporters last week in Iowa. “We’re garnering support at each and every event. I’m confident that we’re doing all the right things.”
Then he turned to the Democratic Party’s presidential front-runner, who is neck and neck with Bush in many polling matchups. “In spite of all the pundits saying the end is near, which is totally untrue, if you look at the head-to-head polls, where I’m head-to-head with Hillary Clinton, I beat her,” Bush said. “Gosh, it must not be as bad as you think.”
Regardless of how he might fare against Clinton, Bush has stalled at around fifth place among Republican primary voters, both in national and early state polls. He sits between the top-tier contenders — Trump, Ben Carson and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — and the rest of the pack, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is enjoying a resurgence in Bush’s must-win state of New Hampshire.
A Monmouth University poll of Iowa released Monday ranked Bush at 6 percent behind Cruz, Trump, Rubio and Carson. In New Hampshire, a Public Policy Polling survey released Friday gave Bush 5 percent — for eighth place. On the same day, a CNN/ORC poll of Republicans nationally gave Bush just 3 percent nationally — fifth place.
Bush supporters are hunkering down for a drawn-out nomination fight, hopeful that he will ultimately emerge as the party’s strongest White House contender.
“Sooner or later people are going to have to get rid of the fun and figure out who’s best to run the country,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), one of Bush’s most prominent supporters. “And he has to be in there. He has to be there.”
Former Colorado governor Bill Owens, who is co-chairing Bush’s campaign in that state, said the candidate “has high name ID, an excellent record to run on and is well-funded.” He also said Bush’s recent emphasis on criticizing Clinton is a wise strategy.
“The Republican Party has nominated lots of candidates over the years who were great in the primary process but couldn’t win the general election,” he said. “For Jeb Bush, the only thing that matters is winning the general election.”
Charlie Pelton, 75, who heard Bush speak last week in Clinton, Iowa, said he appreciated the candidate’s increased focus on foreign affairs and national security. He conceded that “You don’t win elections in Iowa on foreign policy, generally, but that’s what our nation needs.”
Bush’s diminishment was visible at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s all-day candidate summit on Thursday, precisely the sort of forum where he might have been expected to dominate. Right to Rise USA, the super PAC supporting his bid, held a breakfast for interested donors, and Bush held a closed-door meet-and-greet.
In the main room, Bush earned a standing ovation when he took the stage and gave an energetic speech about his ability to “whup” Clinton. But numerous would-be donors sneaked out for a session with Christie.
Later that night, stuck in traffic because of the White House Christmas tree lighting, Bush jumped out of the vehicle and walked to a fundraiser in Dupont Circle. When he arrived, Bush greeted guests who gave at least $1,000 to attend the fundraiser at the home of former Bush administration official C. Boyden Gray. At another fundraiser at a Georgetown bar, Bush snacked on hummus with young professionals, Capitol Hill staffers and students. Tickets ranged from $50 to $2,700.
Donors, who request anonymity to speak frankly about the state of the campaign, are mixed on what could come next.
“This is always the [fundraising] quarter to pick your guy and hunker down,” said a donor who attended a meeting of Bush’s top donors in Miami over the weekend. “We know it’s a rough patch.”
Another emerged from the Miami meeting to say he’s “reenergized” and confident that Bush and his team are “the whole package.”
But a donor who attended the fundraiser at the Georgetown bar said that many supporters are struggling to accept Bush’s troubles. So how are they coping?
“Alcohol,” the donor said.
The same day Bush visited Washington, his older brother, George W. Bush, reunited with members of his administration at the U.S. Capitol for the unveiling of a bust of vice president Richard B. Cheney.
“The last time I was in Washington, I was hanged in the White House,” the former president joked, a reference to the unveiling of his official portrait. “This time, I’ve returned to find my vice president getting busted in the Capitol.”
He said that his father had asked his son to “Send my best regards to Old Iron Ass” — a nickname of endearment the elder Bush once bestowed on Cheney.
There was no reference to Jeb.
Matea Gold, Dave Weigel and Scott Clement contributed to this report.