Standing in a small middle-school gymnasium on a snowy New Hampshire morning, Jeb Bush listened and nodded as a man decked out in New England Patriots gear listed four separate reasons that the son and brother of former presidents may fail to follow the family into the White House.
There was (1) Bush's support for Common Core, the education standards that have become anathema to the conservative base of the party, and (2) his call to legalize many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants at a time when the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, says he'd deport them all. There's (3) the anxiety among voters about a third Bush president and (4) the “low energy” criticism from Trump that the former Florida governor has been unable to shake.
By now, Bush knows the list by heart, and even saw fit at the Hampstead rally to volunteer a fifth obstacle to his comeback bid: that he's widely considered a key member of the Republican establishment at at time when the party's voters are seeking change.
“People want me to walk on the hot coals,” Bush said. “You have to go earn it, and that’s what I’m doing right here. I’m earning it.”
In an otherwise successful swing through New Hampshire this past weekend—Bush seemed to hit all his targets during a trio of town hall meetings, earning multiple standing ovations at an event in Hollis—one question kept surfacing: Despite a string of small victories in these intimate New Hampshire settings, part of the traditional formula to win the state, would it be it enough in such a chaotic political climate?
New Hampshire could either prove to be a miraculous springboard or the final trap door for Bush's political fortunes. With just three weeks remaining until the primary, the one-time front-runner who has plummeted in the polls is finding oddsmakers and even would-be supporters doubtful about his viability.
“I lived in New York on 9/11, and I have all the respect in the world for his brother,” Ella Reap, a real estate agent in Nashua, New Hampshire, said after Bush’s town hall on Friday. “After listening to him tonight, I think he’d keep us safe, too. But I don’t want to waste my vote.”
Bob Beckett, who carries a business card that identifies himself as a registered New Hampshire voter, told Bush on Friday that he'd attended at least five Bush campaign events.
“I’ve actually seen you grow pretty significantly as a candidate,” Beckett told him. “And I’m pretty happy to see that.”
But even Beckett couched the compliment with concern, asking whether Bush’s policy proposals could break through the outsized personalities dominating the race.
In Hampstead, one man pointed out that Bush was the front-runner just a year ago and asked, simply, “What happened?” In Amherst, a boy asked why Bush even wanted to be the head of a party that favored Trump.
Bush’s path back to the top of the polls depends almost exclusively on New Hampshire, where polls show him bunched up with four other candidates, fighting for second behind Trump. He said his two-day swing over the weekend was his 24th trip to the state.
Of course, there's an open question about whether second place even matters. If Trump wins the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 and New Hampshire’s primary on Feb. 9—something no Republican has ever done without the power of incumbency—the businessman and former reality TV show host’s momentum may be next to impossible to stop.
But Iowa at the moment looks like a jump ball between Trump and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. And, in such an unusually crowded field, a strong second place finish in New Hampshire may provide momentum heading into South Carolina and Nevada before the calendar flips to March and the delegate race begins in earnest. In March, more than 30 states hold nominating contests, awarding 60 percent of the all the delegates in the five-month race.
Bush is banking that a breakout performance in New Hampshire will force Republican voters elsewhere to give his candidacy a second look. It's tough to say exactly how Bush is doing as recent polls in the state vary wildly: A poll from Reach Communications on Jan. 7 showed him with 12 percent, good enough for second. Three days later, a Monmouth University survey put Bush in seventh place with 4 percent.
Bush is still able to convert doubters during his freewheeling town halls. Men and women who voice low expectations for Bush when they arrive at his event, often leave reassured—if not in his corner—after Bush stands for an hour fielding questions about Iran sanctions, the latest books he read, and everything in between.
“I liked Jeb Bush in the beginning,” Linda Meehan, 68, said after Bush’s town-hall meeting Saturday in Hampstead. “And when he wasn’t doing as well in the polls I decided to look at all the other candidates.”
“Now, I’m coming back to Jeb Bush and hoping he will have a resurgence in the polls,” she said. “He is the true statesman. I just want people to wake up and see that the others—I call them performers—are not what the country needs.”
On Friday, in his first stop since picking up the endorsement of U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham—the only former presidential candidate so far this year to back another contender—Bush had one of his best performances on the campaign trail.
He made a passionate argument for a more robust military presence; successfully juxtaposed his conservative record as Florida’s former governor with the gridlock and failures in Washington; earned applause for urging a young man to curse; and connected with one woman about being a picky food shopper and another about 1980s pop singer Pat Benatar.
And Bush's latest strategy has been to directly attack Trump over the parade of insults he leveled in the race. It something few other Republicans have been willing to do.
“Stop disparaging women, POWs, Hispanics, Muslims—the list is so long now, it’s more than 50 percent of the voters,” Bush said Friday about Trump. “It makes me think that maybe its going to be hard to win the election if you just keep pushing people down to make yourself look like the strongman.
“So if I’m the anti-Trump,” Bush continued, “that tries to restore some level of decency and policy orientation and character and leadership—true leadership, servant leadership—I love that role, because that’s who I am,” Bush said.
Still, the challenges are many for Bush.
Jeff Wilson, a Nashua retiree, said he was excited to shake Bush's hand, but he's going to cast his vote on who he thinks can beat Trump in the primary and then Democrats in November. “Looking at the numbers, I’m thinking I have to go with someone like Rubio or Cruz,” he said. “It’s just numerical.”
“I’d rather have a governor be president,” Wilson continued. “But that doesn’t seem to be where the Republican electorate is this year. It’s a shame. That one fellow said he’s been to four or five outings, and he’d grown as a candidate? That may be, but the hour is getting late for that.”
Wilson’s wife, Ann, interrupted.
“I switched to Jeb after tonight,” she said. “He said he’s going to count on people like us in this state. He is so articulate, so smart, so well-meaning. You know what? I’ll get behind that. If we all did that?”
Jeff Wilson shrugged his shoulders.
“We saw Ben Carson in the same venue, too, and she said nice things about Ben Carson, too,” Wilson said about his wife. “He’s wise, quiet, principled man. But where is he now? You also have win, unfortunately.”