BEDFORD, N.H. — Jeb Bush insists this is not the final weekend of his presidential campaign. But it has the makings of a last stand.
“I don’t give a you-know-what about whether I’m popular or not. That is fleeting,” he told 700 people in a middle school gymnasium here Saturday, his largest New Hampshire crowd to date.
A year since he began traveling the country in pursuit of the presidency, Bush is no longer always campaigning “joyfully,” as he originally pledged. He has grappled with a long, slow fall from front-runner to also-ran status, enduring relentless insults from Donald Trump and suffering a sixth-place showing in the Iowa caucuses last week.
In New Hampshire, Bush and his team want to top Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a result that would jump-start his campaign and help him emerge as a leading alternative to Trump. Christie is fading, but Kasich is tied or ahead of Bush in recent polls. And Rubio has surged after placing third in Iowa, so Bush is lobbing fresh attacks at his Miami neighbor.
Bush has now fully embraced his family name in an attempt to rescue his chances — after spending the past year struggling with how to talk about and appear with his relatives. His brother George W. Bush is preparing to play a bigger role. His wife and grown sons joined him here on the campaign trail in recent days, as did his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush.
“The Bush thing, people are just going to have to get over it,” he said Saturday. “I am who I am. I’m in the ‘establishment’ because my brother was a president and my dad was a president, and when I woke up in Midland, Texas, there she was. I woke up my little eyes and there she was, Barbara Bush.”
As he traipses across New Hampshire, Jeb Bush dismisses talk of an exit as “just ridiculous.” He told voters that on primary night, “We’re going to surprise the world.”
He’s also talking more about President Obama. Eight years ago, “his life was organized around his own ambition and he won,” Bush said Thursday at a school in Derry.
And that the top Republican contenders are equally inexperienced as they run for president.
“Donald Trump?” he asked the crowd. “I’ll leave it at that,” he said as they cheered.
There are also “two great freshmen senators that can deliver a great speech,” he said, referring to Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). “Very talented people — don’t get me wrong. One of them is a close friend that I admire greatly. But what in their background would suggest that they could make a tough decision?”
The Bush campaign amplified the point in a television ad released Friday. The spot shows former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a Rubio supporter, struggling in an MSNBC interview to name one of Rubio’s legislative accomplishments.
Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush friend and donor, dismissed talk of Bush leaving the race soon and said it was fueled by Rubio supporters.
“At some point in time, we think that people are going to start judging you not by your political skills but by your competence and capabilities,” he said. “And when that happens, Jeb’s going to win.”
As for the Rubio campaign, “One thing I have to do is compliment them,” Cardenas said. “They have been the campaign that by far has been most successful on selling the pundits a bill of goods. The victory speech in Iowa was just mind-boggling. I couldn’t believe it — I’ve never seen a third-place finisher giving a victory speech anywhere.”
When Bush started traveling the country last year, he said he wanted to campaign “by showing my heart.” Most of the time, that has meant giving hugs to supporters or long, nuanced answers to town-hall questions as a way to demonstrate his deep command of issues. But in recent days, he has been much more emotional.
Moved on Thursday by the presence of his 90-year-old mother, Jeb Bush started addressing the crowd but choked up and turned away from cameras as he called his father, former president George H.W. Bush, “the greatest man alive.”
On Saturday, he caught himself again as he started discussing his daughter’s struggles with drug addiction, telling the crowd that he had never done so in public before with his wife, Columba, watching.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush is expected to campaign with Jeb Bush next week in South Carolina, according to campaign aides. The candidate marks his 63rd birthday on Thursday and is expected to spend the day on the trail with his wife, children and grandchildren. Bush supporters and friends in New Hampshire this weekend are making plans to meet again in South Carolina and canvass in the days leading up to its Feb. 20 primary.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Bush supporter, is confident that the campaign will continue in his home state because of what he has been seeing in New Hampshire.
“We’ll be talking about Jeb Bush’s ground game next Wednesday. I’ve seen it with McCain; it’s better than McCain’s,” he said, referring to his close friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who won the New Hampshire Primary in 2000 and 2008.
The Bush team has called or sent volunteers to visit more than 60,000 New Hampshire households, according to Graham. Door-knockers this week included Bush’s senior strategist Sally Bradshaw, as well as a coterie of former aides from his governorship. A group of younger volunteers who are friends of Jeb Bush Jr. are focused on smaller northern towns such as Laconia.
Floridians who came north to help Jeb Bush were greeted Wednesday by a full-page ad in the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper co-signed by seven current and former speakers of the Florida House — a job Rubio once held.
“Take it from people who know Marco and Jeb best,” they wrote. “Governor Bush is the leader we need to make America safer, stronger and better.”
Jason Rosenberg, a reconstructive surgeon from Gainesville, Fla., traveled this week to New Hampshire with his two teenage daughters to knock on doors. He has no personal connection to Bush other than college friends who worked for the former governor.
“That guy should be president of the United States. I’ve just got to convince everyone else of that,” he said. “I know we can get through to that when people start paying serious attention.”