RAYMOND, N.H. — Jeb Bush sat relaxed on a plush couch aboard his luxury “Jeb Can Fix It” bus as it rode here on Tuesday night, musing with reporters about his shortcomings.
“I’ve learned to accept the simple fact that I’m imperfect under God’s watchful eye,” the Republican presidential candidate said. “I don’t have a self-esteem problem, and I don’t have an overstated-worth problem. . . . The adversity I turn into opportunity. It’s an obstacle to jump over. It’s an opportunity to get better.”
The next morning in Manchester, after a child asked what it was like to grow up the son of a president, Bush told a room full of kids that his father’s approval weighed on him. “All he had to do was say, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ and it would send me in a deep, spiraling depression,” he said.
Bush is suddenly campaigning as if he’s in a therapy session, wounded and wrestling with his identity both as a political performer and as heir to the Bush family dynasty. On a comeback tour here this week to rehabilitate his sputtering candidacy, Bush wore his emotions on his sleeve and volunteered introspective interpretations of why he wasn’t winning.
Ten months ago, Bush was the ready-set-go candidate — the one many Republicans could most easily imagine in the Oval Office. Now, he is an awkward aspirant humbled by his own mistakes and miscalculations — not to mention months of Donald Trump’s “low energy” taunts — and searching for his currency in a conservative movement that has moved on from the Bushes.
Through two days on the stump here, he exhibited newfound intensity and a will to persevere despite the political obituaries from pundits. He was well-received everywhere he went, although he did not seal the deal; some voters said they were keeping their options open.
“I don’t think leadership’s about being the big personality on stage,” Bush said Wednesday in Hollis. “. . . The volume in your voice is not a measurement of strength. It’s how you serve that is a measurement of strength.”
This was the most critical week of his campaign so far, and Bush was by turns joyful and tart, carefree and stern. At one stop, he pledged to unite the country and ordered a hostile questioner to “put a smile on your face.” At another stop, he forgot to smile at his own jokes and showed flashes of anger. Addressing about 100 people packed into a wooden barn in Rye, Bush was working so hard to display passion that he was almost screaming his stump speech. “We’re Americans, dammit!” he thundered. It was, as Trump might put it, a high-energy performance.
Energy is something Bush knows he must show at the next Republican debate, scheduled for Tuesday in Milwaukee. In the first three, he was lackadaisical and outmaneuvered by the likes of Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).
The result has not been pretty. Bush has plummeted in some polls; two national surveys released Wednesday had Bush in fifth place with 4 percent. His donors are agitating for a turnaround.
“All the nervous nellies on the call — I promise you, we are going to do better,” Bush told donors on a Wednesday conference call, according to people listening.
Bush has hired a well-known image-maker, Jon Kraushar, to coach him for debates and television appearances. A longtime partner of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, Kraushar has trained some of the cable network’s stars as well as GOP politicians, including Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, during his winning 1988 presidential campaign.
“He’s telling me to be me. He’s telling me to own what I believe,” Bush told ABC News on Wednesday after Kraushar’s hiring was first reported by New York magazine.
On Tuesday night, Bush invited a few reporters aboard his coach — borrowing a page from John McCain’s comeback in his “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus in New Hampshire in 2008.
But while snacking on turkey jerky — he passed on M&Ms to maintain his newly svelte frame — Bush offered more introspection than politics.
He critiqued his stump routine: “I can probably shorten my answers. I can be more precise.”
And then his debating skills: “The debate, the so-called debate, is more of a performance. . . . It gives you an opportunity to say whatever you want. I’ve got to train myself to say what’s on my mind rather than what the question is.”
Can he master it?
“After 62 years. . .” Bush replied, laughing.
What about nerves?
“I felt really good about the debate I screwed up on,” he said. Then he corrected himself: “No, I felt bad after.”
His remedy, he said, was to stop directly answering the questions moderators ask. “It’s kind of weird, but that’s why it’s not really a debate,” he said. “It’s a chance to be able to say what’s on your mind. . . . I’ve just got to be clear about what I want to say.”
On the trail this week, there’s no doubt what Bush wanted to say. His new “Jeb Can Fix It” slogan was emblazoned across his bus and trumpeted on shiny red-and-white signs held up by his supporters.
Bush’s message is simple: In a field of flashy personalities, ideological purists and inspirational orators, Bush alone has the executive experience and policy know-how to achieve solutions to Washington’s intractable problems.
Bush said he could fix the war-torn Middle East and fix the United States’s relationship with Russia, fix Social Security, fix the health-care system and fix the tax code. Left unspoken, of course, was whether Bush can fix his own campaign.
The only thing Bush acknowledged that he couldn’t fix was human-waste overflow. At a town hall meeting in Raymond, Bush was asked three times about the small town’s strained septic system.
“This is not the problem of the president,” Bush responded playfully. “I’m not going to solve your septic problem tonight, I’m afraid.”
When asked at one point this week to analyze the Ben Carson phenomenon, Bush called the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon who has rocketed to the top of the polls “really a nice guy” and said he found Carson “soothing” — but added that he himself was “not smart enough” to explain the political forces at work.
Bush’s campaign strategists insist that there is plenty of time for him to recover, buoyed by millions of dollars in super PAC advertising here and in other early-voting states. And voters here seem willing to give Bush another look.
“I think there’s one too many Bushes,” said Cindy Rogers, who is in her 60s and sized up Bush at the Hollis General Store and Pharmacy. To her, he seemed “pretty low-key.”
“He’s not intense,” she said. “He’s very good and very sincere about what he wants to do.”
Bush was not the first in his family to visit the Hollis store. “Twenty years ago, Poppy Bush was in this pharmacy,” owner Vahrij Manoukian said proudly in his introduction. “I was with your brother. He was funny.”
Bush kicked off his bus tour at sundown Tuesday in Rye, a tony hamlet along the coast where former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown hosted a “No B.S. BBQ” event. “I bought 280 hot dogs,” Brown said, summoning his guests to eat. “Please don’t let me take any home.”
People trickled in — although fewer than the number of hot dogs — and not all were actual Bush supporters. Cilla Pickering, 68, was handed a “Jeb!” sticker as she awaited the candidate’s arrival. But when a reporter asked whether she was voting for Bush, she shrugged and sighed.
“I like Jeb, but I just feel bad for him,” she said. “He’s had a hard go of it. His brother was just so much more engaging. But Jeb, people just chew him up. Isn’t it painful to watch?”
When Bush stepped off his “Jeb Can Fix It” bus, Brown greeted him: “Hectic couple of days, huh?”
Bush looked determined to prove that his was anything but a finished campaign. “You guys elect presidents, and that’s why I’m here,” he said. “I’ll come back and back and back.”
Later, Bush roared, “Live free or die, brothers and sisters.”
Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.