Jeb Bush returned to the state he once governed Monday to flack a new book and road-test a new tone to his struggling campaign, one that tries to capitalize on his inability to electrify voters.
“Getting things done isn't about yelling into a camera, or regurgitating sound bites free of substance,” Bush told a capacity crowd of about 300 inside an upper-middle class community center in Tampa. “But leadership is something different.”
It was the first stop of a tour promoting his self-published Reply All, a compendium of thousands of e-mails Bush sent and received during his tenure as Florida's governor. He would later visit two more cities in the Sunshine State, where he recently polled behind Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Senator Marco Rubio, his former protege.
But after his attempt to attack Rubio backfired during last week's presidential debate, Bush conceded to fellow Floridians he's been surrounded by too many advisers. “I've gotten a lot of advice lately. More than enough,” he said. “Nail that zinger. Be angrier. Hide your inner wonk.”
Bush and his allies now appear to be betting voters will be convinced that Bush can make up for what he lacks in multi-platform charisma with experience and sincerity.
“I can't be anyone else but myself,” Bush said. “This election is not about a set of personalities, it’s about a set of principles.”
Focusing his implicit criticism on Trump, who has yet to significantly falter in the national polls, Bush drew a contrast. “I'm not stepping into the role of 'angry agitator,'” he said in Tampa. “You can’t just tell Congress, 'You’re fired,' and go to a commercial break.”
Will Weatherford, like Rubio a former speaker of the Florida statehouse, endorsed Bush's approach. “He's not a performer. He's not a circus act,” Weatherford said. “Right now—you're just hearing from a lot of noisemakers.”
Weatherford, who is backing Bush, said the former Florida governor is better positioned than the other candidates to win the nomination. It's become a common Bush campaign argument: He's built for the long haul.
“Let me tell you something, when the dust clears and the delegates are counted, we're going to win this campaign,” Bush said. The crowd responded with a round of applause.
At the event in Tampa, some Republicans warned that Bush will have to go further if he wants to overtake outsider insurgents Trump and Carson.
“Trump doesn't give a speech—Trump has a conversation, with a give and take from the audience,” said George Farrell, who is active in Florida politics and attended Bush's rally. “Jeb gave a more authentic speech today—but he still is giving a speech.”
“If you're old-school, you would think it was a great speech,” added Farrell, who remains undecided in the presidential race. “But moving forward, Jeb has to give less of a speech and more of a conversation if he wants to tap into what's going on across the country.”
After leaving Tampa, Bush campaigned in Orlando and Jacksonville. On Tuesday, he heads to South Carolina and New Hampshire.