Is Donald Trump Helping the Bush Brand?

Unprompted, New Hampshire voters say the real estate mogul's rhetoric is enhancing the Florida governor's appeal.

US presidential hopeful Donald Trump delivers remarks at the Maryland Republican Party's 25th Annual Red, White & Blue Dinner on June 23, 2015 at the BWI Airport Marriott in Linthicum, Maryland. AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Photographer: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

While Republican Party mandarins wring their hands over Donald Trump's presidential bid, the celebrity real estate mogul's untethered political approach may actually be buoying Jeb Bush, the target of his most frequent attacks, and making the former Florida governor’s moderate approach to immigration more palatable in the process.

That's the case for a least some New Hampshire voters who were impressed by Bush's performance at a town hall meeting this week and offered favorable — and unprompted —  comparisons to Trump.

"He seemed to really get into the weeds talking about issues," Dennis Hogan, the Hillsborough County Attorney, said after listening to Bush. "And he says it in a sellable way. Not like Trump, where you’re saying something and you're losing as many people as you're gaining. We don’t need that in a nominee."

Trump announced his presidential campaign on June 16 by saying the country needs "somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again." But following that speech and a series of interviews, Republican donors and elected leaders have worried about what damage he's doing to the party's brand.

NBC, Univision, Macy's and other companies cut ties with Trump as he defended his comments that many immigrants in the country illegally are rapists. Republican donor John Jordan told the Associated Press on Monday that GOP leaders should take steps to block Trump's access to the first presidential debate next month. Trump told CNN that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus asked him to "tone it down a little bit."

Much of Trump's invective has been targeted at Bush. Trump briefly posted on his Twitter page, followed by 3.14 million people, another person's comment that Bush "has to like the Mexican Illegals" (sic) because his wife is from Mexico. Trump called Bush's position on education standards "pathetic" and ridiculed the former governor for saying many immigrants illegally cross the border as "an act of love. "I mean what kind of stuff is that?" Trump said on Fox News this week. "It's baby stuff."

The comments have earned him media attention, and now the top spot in the Republican field, according to a new Economist/YouGov poll. The poll showed Trump with support of 15 percent of respondents, 4 percentage points ahead of Bush and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. A plurality of respondents, 29 percent, said they believed Jeb Bush would ultimately win the party's nomination.

Trump, who lives part-time in Palm Beach, Florida, has a long and complicated history with Bush, whose home is about 90 minutes south in Miami. The two helped raise money in 1990 for a Nicaraguan presidential candidate. Trump gave $50,000 to the Florida Republican Party while Bush was governor as he unsuccessfully pushed for Bush to expand gambling in the state. Trump has called Bush's brother, George W. Bush, "probably the worst president in the history of the United States," and repeatedly says that the "last thing we need is another Bush."

Just a few weeks ago, Bush was chuckling at criticisms from Trump. Now, he's taking it personally. "His views are way out of the mainstream of what Republicans think," Bush told reporters after marching in a pair of Fourth of July parades in New Hampshire.

Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush in 4th of July Parade in Amherst, New Hampshire.
Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush in 4th of July Parade in Amherst, New Hampshire.
Photographer: Kayana Szymczak

On immigration, it can be difficult to define the mainstream of the party. Two of the four U.S. senators running for president backed a bipartisan bill that included a path to citizenship for many of the country'a 12 million undocumented immigrants. But House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, couldn't get enough support for even a watered-down version in his chamber. "This has become the biggest political football I've seen in my congressional career, this whole issue of illegal immigration and what to do about it," Boehner told reporters on Thursday.

Bush has thrown himself into the immigration issue, and is attempting to persuade his party to take a more moderate position on immigration, arguing that legalizing undocumented workers will boost the economy and help the party. 

"I want to win elections," Bush said while answering an immigration question on Wednesday at the New Hampshire town hall meeting. "And to win we better start figuring out ways to message our beliefs in a way that gives people hope that everybody will be included in the progress that comes with this."

Bush added a dose of humor. When one man started his question about border control by saying, "Me gusta Latinos y Mexicanos," Bush laughed. "Maybe you could talk to Donald Trump about that," Bush said. "I don't have his number, but I can find it for you. Give him a call."

Bush, who has led in most recent president polls of New Hampshire, is also figuring out ways to connect with Republican crowds as he pushes a plan legalize undocumented immigrants.

He earned applause from the audience when he said he'd campaign "in Spanish and English," and again for tough talk about the death of Kathryn Steinle, who prosecutors say was killed in San Francisco by a Mexican man who had already been deported five times. "We ought to eliminate sanctuary cities," Bush said. "We shouldn't provide law enforcement monies for cities like San Francisco until they change their policies."

On the border, Bush talked about stationing agents closer to the U.S.-Mexico line, building a "virtual wall," and using drones to patrol the area and "send a signal."

Donald Trump (L) and Miss Connecticut USA Erin Brady pose onstage after Brady won the 2013 Miss USA pageant at PH Live at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on June 16, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Donald Trump (L) and Miss Connecticut USA Erin Brady pose onstage after Brady won the 2013 Miss USA pageant at PH Live at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on June 16, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"Donald Trump is colorful, but Bush is trying to think of a solution," Valerie Morelli, a 69-year-old from Amherst said when asked why she was impressed with Bush's performance. "One thing I wish is that he (Bush) would still build a wall, even though he said there’s other way to do it."

"I was impressed," said Ed Gorman, a 66-year-old from Londonderry who has concerns about illegal immigration. "He's the first candidate that I’ve heard actually say that we have a situation with illegal immigrants, that if you’re not going to deport them wholesale, you’ve got to deal with them here. And it sounded like he’s going to do that."

Gorman isn't totally sold yet. He brought up Trump's comments on immigration, saying "there's a smidgeon of truth there."

"The best people are not always coming over, but I’m not going to support anything he said," Gorman said of Trump.

Gorman said he was looking forward to seeing other Republican presidential candidates speak in New Hampshire before making his decision, mentioning U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

 "I don’t want to see Trump," he offered. "That’s a waste of my time."

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