TAMPA — Jeb Bush took the podium here Monday to “Takin’ Care of Business” with a clear goal: to reset his floundering presidential campaign at its most pivotal moment.
Speaking in a bayside garden club under a banner declaring “Jeb Can Fix It,” Bush delivered an optimistic speech meant to emphasize the leadership credentials he burnished as governor of Florida. More importantly, the event was designed to provide a contrast of his outlook and attributes with GOP rivals he never named.
As he kicked off a tour through three early voting states and released a new e-book, Bush warned the crowd not to “roll the dice on another presidential experiment” — a reference clearly aimed at Marco Rubio, the young senator Bush’s campaign has disparaged as a “GOP Obama.”
He argued that “you can’t just tell Congress ‘You’re fired’ and go to a commercial break,” referring to rival Donald Trump’s signature “Apprentice” line.
And he tried to distinguish the way he is running, saying that he is more focused on principle than personality — a reference to his widely panned performance at last week’s third GOP presidential debate.
“As you may have heard, last week I was in Colorado for the third Republican presidential debate,” he told his supporters, who chuckled in response.
“If you watched the debate, you probably came away thinking that the election is about sound bites or fantasy football, or which candidate can interrupt the loudest,” he continued. “I’m here to tell you it is not.”
Much of what Bush discussed was in line with the themes he has sketched out so far in the campaign to little positive effect. Monday was part reboot and part retry in the hopes that his pitch will finally strike a chord with voters.
“If Jeb is Jeb and people get to see that, Jeb is going to be the next president of the United States,” Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) said.
But Bush has been plagued throughout his campaign by distracting comments that have overshadowed his central message. He is in need of a largely error-free performance this week that amplifies his basic argument for the presidency: that his leadership credentials and executive experience set him apart from Trump, Rubio and others in the race.
Bush will also need to do well in the next televised debate on Nov. 10. If Bush doesn’t fare better on the trail and the debate stage than he has in recent weeks, his large but fragile network of financial support could begin to crumble.
“They keep trying to re-calibrate and reset and start over,” said a Bush fundraiser who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I think you get one or two of those. They are at like number three.”
Rubio is best positioned to capitalize on a Bush collapse. He holds similar policy positions and is rising in the polls thanks to strong debate performances in which he upstaged Bush. On Monday, Rubio won the support of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
After his Florida visit Monday, Bush plans to campaign in South Carolina on Tuesday before embarking on a three-day bus tour through New Hampshire. Despite trailing there, Bush vowed not to abandon his optimistic outlook.
“There is an important place in our politics for righteous indignation. But anger that leads to resentment without delivering results will take us down a path to perdition,” Bush warned.
Bush’s tour is timed to coincide with the release of his new e-book “Reply All,” an exhaustive anthology of hundreds of self-selected e-mails he sent and received as governor. In his speech Bush recalled helping a woman get a raccoon out of her attic after she e-mailed him — an example of how no task was too small for him to tackle.
Bush decided not to include personal messages from family and friends, so the book is devoid of fresh insights into his relationship with his famous parents or his brother, former president George W. Bush.
But there are several pages of e-mails Jeb Bush received from Floridians angered and concerned about the 2000 presidential ballot recount. And he included e-mails he received regarding the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose case sparked a national debate about when government should intervene in end-of-life health-care matters.
Bush spent the afternoon at campaign stops in Orlando and Jacksonville. Fielding questions from reporters, Bush criticized the way CNBC conducted last week’s debate.
Toward the end of his speech in Tampa, Bush said he has received “a lot of advice lately . . . more than enough.” He wondered aloud what kind of trivial advice Abraham Lincoln would have to endure if he were alive today.
“Advisers telling him to shave his beard,” quipped Bush. “Cable pundits telling him to lose the top hat. Opposition researchers calling him a five-time loser before the age of 50.”
He concluded: “I can’t be something I’m not.”
Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.