The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Jeb Bush’s campaign ran off course before it even began

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, speaks during the Wirtschaftsrat conference in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, June 9, 2015. European integration must be furthered to boost global stability, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said today in Berlin. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Jeb Bush (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News)

When asked to pinpoint where Jeb Bush’s presidential effort began running into trouble, many confidants utter a single word: Dallas.

Mike Murphy, Bush’s political alter ego, decided early on to hold regular senior staff meetings at an unusual location: a Hyatt hotel inside a terminal at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The idea was that it was a central and relatively inexpensive gathering place for a team scattered from Los Angeles, where Murphy lives, to Miami, where the would-be candidate resides.

It went fine at first but quickly became an awkward routine. Donors and other Republicans found the setup ungainly for a campaign-in-waiting that was supposed to be based in Florida.

Older Bush hands also grew unhappy with rapid hiring by new advisers, and relationships frayed, according to Bush associates. And as the former Florida governor began to founder on the trail and in the polls, the discussions flared into arguments about how to divvy up money and resources between Bush’s allied super PAC and his official campaign.

“These things are always tug of wars,” Thomas D. Rath, a Bush family friend in New Hampshire, said of the initial sessions. “It’s almost like the first day of school, everyone trying to get to the right place and find the right seats.”

The airport huddles were just one sign among many of a political operation going off course — disjointed in message and approach, torn between factions and more haphazard than it appeared on the surface. Bush’s first six months as an all-but-declared candidate have been defined by a series of miscalculations, leaving his standing considerably diminished ahead of his formal entry into the race on Monday.

Debrief: For Jeb Bush, the challenge is making it about ‘Jeb,’ not ‘Bush’

In interviews this week, dozens of Bush backers and informed Republicans — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to comment candidly — described an overly optimistic, even haughty exploratory operation. Strategic errors were exacerbated by unexpected stumbles by the would-be candidate and internal strife within his team, culminating in a staff shake-up this week.

The original premise of Bush’s candidacy — that a bold, fast start would scare off potential rivals and help him overcome the burden of his last name — has proved to be misguided.

His operation's ability to rake in large checks also fueled inflated expectations. Supporters acknowledged this week that an allied super PAC was likely to fall short — perhaps substantially — of predictions that it would bring in $100 million in the first half of the year.

On the stump, Bush has stuck to his pledge not to shift to the right to win the nomination, but his middle-of-the-road positions on immigration and education have come off more as out of step with the base of his party than shrewdly pragmatic. His wonky question-and-answer exchanges with voters sometimes resemble college lectures rather than a disarming appeal for votes.

The troubles have eroded the image Bush has sought to present as the one Republican uniquely ready for the presidential stage. He has slipped in polls from presumed front-runner to one of several candidates jumbled toward the top of an increasingly crowded field.

Fact checking political rhetoric by Glenn Kessler

“We’ve learned that the prospect of a big financial advantage is not going to keep people out of the race and that the notion of a new face is stronger than we might have thought,” Vin Weber, an outside Bush adviser, said in an interview. “That requires modest adjustments in strategy, not wholesale changes.”

Jeb Bush shakes up team ahead of campaign launch

After weeks of bad press, “donors were getting a little edgy,” Weber said. “No one is ready to jump ship. Nobody has lost heart. But they have watched other candidates rise in the polls.”

Speaking Wednesday in Berlin during an overseas trip, Bush expressed confidence. "It's June, for crying out loud, so we've got a long way to go," he said, adding later: "I'm going to compete everywhere. If I'm a candidate, there's no fifth-place, you know, kind of mentality in my mind."

Forced to make up lost ground, Bush, his aides and his super-PAC allies are now preparing plans to attack the records and experience of his GOP competition, especially Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. A summer envisioned as a season of slow and warm introductions to voters is poised to be a battle as Bush tries to recapture his place atop the pack.

“The Bushes have always underestimated the depth of the base’s dissatisfaction with their policies, and they take the criticism personally,” Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio host, said in an interview. “Jeb has to try to understand the reasons why conservatives have problems with him instead of crowing about how principled he is.”

Aides bristle at what they consider the media’s relentless focus on Bush’s personal and professional past. They say that out on the campaign trail, in visits to more than a dozen states, he has been doing exactly what he should.

"Interacting with people on the road who deal with real issues . . . that's what brings true joy to Jeb," Sally Bradshaw, a longtime consultant, said in a recent e-mail.

Bush started with an aggressive series of steps late last year and early this year — a kind of “shock and awe” entry that caught fellow contenders by surprise. The moves were designed to send an unambiguous cue to fundraisers and party activists and to re­inforce a natural advantage Bush had with establishment donors.

Earlier: Awash in cash, Bush asks donors not to give more than $1 million

At the same time, Bush’s inner circle operated on the theory that there was little that could be gained by trying to speed up the political clock and that most voters in early states would not begin paying attention until later in the year.

Bush revived a 650-member alumni network of aides who worked for him as governor, and he recruited 21 veterans of his father’s and brother’s administrations to advise him on foreign policy. He hired state directors in the first four early states, aides for outreach to evangelical Christians and Hispanics, and a spokeswoman dedicated to fielding questions from the Spanish-language press.

As Bush travels the country, he has fielded more than 900 questions from donors, reporters and voters, according to aides. He has maintained a busy schedule that stretches from the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — where conservative Republicans remain skeptical — to places visited less frequently at this early stage by presidential candidates, including Denver, Seattle and Puerto Rico.

Despite those efforts, some recent surveys put Bush in a five-way tie for the lead. Recent polls touted by his advisers give him a wide lead in New Hampshire, while others taken nationally and in the early states put him behind Rubio and Walker.

Post-ABC poll: Bush lead evaporates in unsettled GOP race

Sensing Bush’s vulnerabilities, Ohio Gov. John Kasich this week hired two experienced GOP operatives as he prepares to jump into the contest and make a play for the same donors Bush has already wooed.

“I didn’t think I was going to be back up here again, because frankly I thought Jeb was just going to suck all the air out of the room, and it just hasn’t happened,” Kasich told New Hampshire business leaders last week.

Bush dispatched one possible adversary early when Mitt Romney decided not to run again. His vigorous entrance also bruised the chances of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is still pondering a bid. They did not regard Rubio as a likely opponent, thinking he would decide against challenging his onetime mentor, but were proved wrong when the young, telegenic Cuban American jumped in the race.

Early on, there were indications that Bush’s ability to command huge amounts of cash for his allied Right to Rise super PAC was emerging as the dominant characteristic of his potential candidacy. His team laid out presidential-style goals for fundraisers, asking them to pull in $50,000, $100,000, $250,000 or $500,000 by April 17. The money was flowing into the super PAC so briskly that his advisers issued an edict — no contributions of more than $1 million, for now.

"He was more of a super-PAC candidate than a retail candidate," said one Republican close to the Bush operation. ". . . When was the last time he's asked anyone for a vote? It's been quite a few years."

Those concerns, simmering under the surface, finally boiled over one week in mid-May with a series of interviews focused on the most obvious issue imaginable for a Bush: the Iraq war.

On Iraq question, Jeb Bush stumbles and GOP rivals pounce

Starting with an interview aired on Fox News on Monday, May 11, Bush struggled over four days to answer whether he would have authorized the war begun by his brother given what is known now about faulty intelligence. He first said yes, then said “maybe,” then refused to answer altogether.

Finally, that Thursday, he attempted to settle the issue at a campaign-style event in Arizona. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions — knowing what we know now, what would you have done — I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”

The episode served to crystallize some of the key concerns about Bush — his reluctance to criticize or distance himself from the unpopular policies of George W. Bush, and his tendency toward prickliness if pushed.

“We should have had that answer nailed down,” one donor said. “There were people who were really shaken by that.”

By the time major party donors gathered in Dallas in late May for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association’s executive roundtable, the overwhelming sentiment, according to several participants, was that Jeb Bush was less formidable than many thought he was going to be. Some flatly stated that they did not believe he could win the nomination.

People close to Bush started getting anxious, according to a top party fundraiser with close ties to his advisers — and things began to deteriorate inside the Bush camp.

David Kochel, an Iowa-based strategist and former Romney aide, had been brought aboard in January as a de facto campaign manager. As the months wore on, Bradshaw and Murphy became jittery about Kochel’s concentration on staffing issues rather than deflecting the shots being thrown Bush’s way.

Meanwhile, Bush was growing chummy with Danny Diaz, a 39-year-old Washington native and onetime plumber, who was spotted several times on the road with Bush while Kochel ground away at headquarters near the Miami airport.

By late May, Kochel’s grip on power had eroded. Bradshaw and Murphy moved with the candidate’s blessing to push Kochel into a lesser role and ensure they alone had final say about the allocation of funds. The candidate, urged on by his allies and donors, suggested that a more assertive tack was necessary.

On Monday, as Bush prepared to leave for Europe, Diaz was named the campaign manager.

Friends and donors are hopeful that Bush has corrected course and that his cash-flush political committees will carry him further than other candidates.

“He’s going to try to do it his way without acting with every change in the wind, without doing full face-plants on the pandering,” said Tallahassee lobbyist John “Mac” Stipanovich, a Bush ally.

Dan Balz, Scott Clement, Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger and Philip Rucker in Washington and Karen Tumulty in Berlin contributed to this report.