This is not how Jeb Bush thought his summer would end. The candidate once seen as the most likely Republican presidential nominee is languishing in the polls, his fundraising has slowed, and he endures daily taunts from the rival who unseated him as the front-runner, Donald Trump.
Through it all, Bush is sticking to the same strategy that he and his advisers laid out months ago: Establish himself as a tested conservative reformer who served eight years as Florida governor, ride out the chaotic pre-primary season and wait for the party to coalesce around him.
Even as he shifts tactics over the short term to fight back against Trump, Bush is plodding forward, returning time and again in his appearances to the comfort zone of his years in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, when he was an alpha leader and fellow Republicans showed him deference rather than defiance.
But deflating Trump is an urgent mission, necessary in the eyes of Bush confidants to give their candidate room to make his preferred pitch.
Bush traveled to Pensacola, Fla., last week to recall his stewardship of the state through massive hurricanes. On Tuesday, he touted his education reforms at La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Miami’s Little Havana. And the first television ads promoting Bush, which his allied super PAC will begin airing this month in early caucus and primary states, are expected to trumpet the conservative aspects of his Florida tenure.
“That’s the campaign we’re running — first and foremost — to highlight this record of reform and results,” Danny Diaz, Bush’s campaign manager, said in a rare interview this week outlining the fall strategy.
“We have to focus on the things that matter to voters in states like New Hampshire, and what matters to voters in New Hampshire is the total paralysis in Washington,” Diaz said. “The city is broken. It’s all about talk and chaos, not about results. What they want is a proven conservative reformer.”
At Bush’s Miami headquarters, aides are positioning themselves for a drawn-out battle, using phrases like “long game,” “slow and steady” and “tell our story.”
Bush’s priority is to convince conservatives that he is one of them. After hibernating in political winter through much of the Obama presidency, Bush is laboring to introduce himself to conservatives unfamiliar with his Florida record of cutting taxes, downsizing bureaucracies and signing antiabortion measures.
The campaign is calculating that voters eventually will come around to Bush as a consensus candidate who is palatable to both establishment figures and conservative activists and, importantly, can win the general election.
“I think some of these lesser candidates who haven’t been able to catch a hold and they start falling out, their supporters will move to classic candidates like Jeb,” said Mel Sembler, a longtime Bush family friend and fundraiser.
Bush’s strategy carries risks.
Recent polls show that Republican voters favor candidates from outside of government, with a majority collectively supporting anti-establishment figures Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former technology executive Carly Fiorina and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Fairly or not, Bush has been dubbed the establishment’s candidate. Moreover, he is the scion of a political dynasty that many conservative activists view with skepticism.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said that some of Bush’s opponents — Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — also fit the mold of appealing to the conservative base without scaring the establishment.
Bush “has to hope that the credible hybrid candidates don’t catch fire and Trump implodes,” Pawlenty said. “That’s a lot of ifs.”
This is new terrain for Bush. He has had complete control over his political narrative for years, with the exception of his narrow loss in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign.
To many Republicans, it was unthinkable even a few months ago that Bush, at this stage, would register in single digits in any poll. Bush stood at 6 percent among Iowa Republican caucus-goers in the latest Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics survey.
Bush has kept up a steady pace of fundraising events, but money has not come in as quickly through the traditionally slow summer months as it did in the spring, people close to the campaign said. This led the campaign to tighten its spending last month, including trimming some salaries.
To rev up its numbers, the campaign is drawing on the Bush family network. Former president George W. Bush has committed to headline fundraising events, beginning with a Sept. 10 luncheon in New York, and his wife, Laura, and Jeb’s wife, Columba, will headline their own events.
Bush officials are rolling out new perks to reward bundlers who bring in extra sums. For instance, the top fundraiser who collects at least $25,000 in one week will receive a “special VIP experience” in New York on Sept. 8 when Bush is in town for an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Concerns have been drifting through Bush’s wide circle, including about whether his wonky recollections of programs he shepherded as governor a decade and a half ago are enough to excite a GOP base that has been enthralled by Trump’s populist bravado.
Trump’s volley of punches has had far-reaching consequences, portraying Bush as weak in temperament as well as on policy. Just Wednesday, Trump admonished Bush for speaking Spanish.
Diaz, the hard-charging operative who was brought on as Bush’s campaign manager in the spring, said the campaign is now assertively taking Trump on because it views the billionaire businessman as a “legitimate” threat.
“Mr. Trump is in this for the long haul,” Diaz said. “I think that’s abundantly clear. I think it’s also clear that he intends to run a legitimate campaign.”
The Bush team is trying to sow doubts among conservatives about Trump’s ideology by casting him as a liberal interloper. The critique was designed not merely to damage Trump but also to let movement conservatives see Bush speaking from a position of relative purity. The attacks will continue, with the help of big-name surrogates.
In the interview, Diaz challenged the media to adopt a more aggressive tone covering Trump, as it would any other front-running candidate.
“He should be asked serious questions to see if he can offer serious responses,” he said. “I think it’s totally in question whether he’s capable of doing that.”
Getting in the ring with Trump does not come naturally for Bush, but he and advisers concluded it was imperative. Bush’s next opportunity to reclaim his mojo is the CNN debate in two weeks, when much will ride on whether Bush shows strength or shrinks under Trump’s assault.
Among Bush associates, the consensus view on Trump has veered from chuckles and condescension earlier this year to alarm. Some fear the Bush-Trump feud could consume the campaign.
“We all underestimated Trump at the outset,” said adviser Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman. “Now we’re overestimating him.”
In Iowa, where Bush’s poll numbers have slipped perhaps most dramatically, loyalists are sticking with him, although they acknowledge his need for a jolt.
“He is probably wearing down a little bit, so it’s time for him to step back and regroup,” said Joan Ballantyne, Cherokee County chair for Bush’s Iowa campaign. “We still believe he’s got it, he’s got what it takes, as difficult as it may be.”
Matea Gold and Dan Balz contributed to this report.