NASHUA, N.H. — Speaking to a Rotary Club on Monday that his father once addressed as vice president, Jeb Bush admitted that he had long resisted visiting New Hampshire before he became a presidential candidate to avoid fueling speculation.
But after more than eight months of campaigning here, he said, “I’m a better person, and I’m certainly a better candidate.”
Something has clicked for Bush in New Hampshire in the past few days. What has transpired by no means guarantees him a top-tier finish in Tuesday’s Republican primary here, but the crowds turning out to see him are bigger, his delivery on the stump is crisper and some of his key rivals have stumbled. At the least, the developments have mostly silenced talk of a hasty exit and skittish donors.
“I’m feeling good,” the former Florida governor said as he jumped off his campaign bus at the Nashua Country Club on Monday morning.
Across Bush World — including his famous family members, senior aides, well-heeled donors and Florida loyalists braving a blizzard — there’s a growing sense of relief. Finally, after enduring months of bad news reports, tepid debate performances and two rounds of campaign budget cuts, some believe they’re on the verge of a good night.
“I’m really proud of Jeb,” younger brother Neil Bush said on Monday at the Rotary Club luncheon. “You know, he’s persisted and in spite of his last name, he’s showing people in New Hampshire that he is the best qualified guy and that message is resonating. He’s standing up to the bully — to [Donald] Trump — like no other candidate has, and I think he’s really gotten what we’re now calling ‘Jebmentum.’ ”
Moments later, Jeb Bush walked into the banquet hall and played to a larger-than-usual bank of television cameras. He stopped at every table to shake every hand. He posed for a photo with a pianist playing Broadway show tunes before turning to greet the media.
“Will you sing?” a reporter asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m trying to save my voice.”
On Monday night, Bush is slated to hold a rally in Portsmouth in the same hall that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used to conclude his successful New Hampshire primary campaigns in 2000 and 2008. On Tuesday, Bush is expected to make a series of unscheduled stops to turn out support or convince still-undecided voters. The Bush team has relied on 250 out-of-state volunteers over the past several weekends, many of whom worked for Bush as governor and flew up from Florida. Among them is Will Weatherford, a former Florida House speaker.
“There’ve been good speakers, but no one as good as him,” Bush told the Nashua luncheon crowd on Monday — a subtle dig at Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a 2016 rival who once had Weatherford’s old job.
Bush has been particularly helped by circumstances beyond his control in recent days. First, Trump, his leading nemesis, placed second in Iowa, slowing the business magnate’s march. Bush placed sixth in Iowa, but he never committed to the caucuses as avidly as Trump did. Most also agree that Bush bested Trump in a Saturday debate tussle over eminent domain.
Then there’s Rubio, Bush’s former mentee, who was humiliated in the debate when rival Chris Christie called him out for repeating talking points — and Rubio repeated them again anyway.
Bush and his advisers say Rubio’s struggles vividly proved what they have long asserted: The senator’s carefully crafted image masks his inexperience to serve as president. For months, advisers and donors have argued that Trump had “blocked out the sun” with wall-to-wall coverage of his unconventional campaign, leaving Rubio to enjoy what several aides and donors describe as fawning media coverage.
The Bush team is airing an attack ad that raises questions about Rubio’s lack of legislative accomplishments. Bush criticized Rubio on the campaign trail Sunday in a backhanded way.
“Look, I’ve got a monkey brain, to be honest with you,” he said as the crowd laughed. “I can’t say the same thing, like — I can’t say it. My mind works differently — message discipline is not my strength, I admit it. Something goes on in there, it’s fertile, it’s growing, it’s challenging, I always question myself — I’m intellectually curious.”
Finally getting to his point, Bush added: “It’s not all scripted — I think that’s actually a strength to be president of the United States, because you cannot script being commander in chief.”
Leaving the event, Bush bear-hugged a man who said he planned to vote for the former governor after seeing him at several events. Beaming, Bush said pundits “are going to have to rewrite their political obits” — or stories of his political demise.
Then he pointed to me: “You’re on that list.”