Who wants warm and fuzzy?

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Regular Guy Jeb Bush Lost to Gladiators

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Jeb Bush did everything wrong in this presidential campaign, but I'm sorry to see him go. He was, for want of a better word, the most human of the Republicans in the race.

I saw him campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He was clearly undergoing a difficult learning process.

In Iowa, despite having sunk low in the polls, he was trying to sound confident, being a little more forceful than his quiet personality and coming off nervous, even a little scared of his audiences. He was also trying to talk as little as he could about his family, trying too hard to show he was his own man. Conservative talk show hosts were laughing at his posters, which just said "Jeb!": He was the only candidate without a last name when everyone knew he had the most famous one. And then there were the debates, in which Donald Trump pummeled him with the ease of a champion boxer taking on a shy, bespectacled novice. 

He overspent crazily on ads, clearly believing in the power of this old-time blunt instrument -- but it just gave more ammunition to Trump, who kept telling his fans that pathetic Bush was just burning money without any visible result. In the end, Bush lost so badly in Iowa that each vote cost him $626, according to my calculations based on data from Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. 

In New Hampshire, the attempts at aggressiveness were gone. Bush embraced his normcore style, and he listened to voters more than he talked at them. He sounded concerned and compassionate as he gave substantive answers to voters' questions, whether they dealt with allowing women to be drafted into the military, specific plans for replacing Obamacare, or his plans for education reform.

New Hampshire's heroin epidemic was the biggest issue in that state's campaign. Melissa Crews, who runs a recovery center for addicts in Manchester, told me how Bush -- whose daughter Noelle had struggled with substance abuse -- showed up at the center without cameras or much of an entourage, made a donation, and had an intelligent discussion of what could be done to help people trying to kick a drug habit.

It was in New Hampshire that Bush realized it was OK to bring his family into the campaign. He welcomed his mother, Barbara Bush, and started off his campaign appearances by talking at length about his love for his wife. He actually started sounding unashamed of his last name and the dynasty he represented. Before one town hall I attended, his son, George P. Bush, introduced him as a "grinder" who would stay in the race to the bitter end and never give up. 

On February 6, Bush actually performed well against Trump in a debate. He scored some points against him on eminent domain, and when Trump tried to shush him, the audience booed -- one of the most uncomfortable moments for Trump in the televised part of this campaign.

When the vote count showed he had improved his performance -- though a vote still cost him $293, second only to Chris Christie's $295 -- it seemed to me well deserved. His learning curve was so steep that if his performance curve matched it, he'd soon have a fighting chance.

What I saw in South Carolina was anticlimactic. Jeb brought in the heavy artillery -- his brother George W. Bush, still well liked by Republican voters -- but he couldn't match the ex-president's charisma and warmth. By contrast, he sounded desperate, pleading. He'd found out that Republicans weren't allergic to the Bush name after all, but also that they doubted whether he was worthy of it.

He lacked the aura of victory, he was too soft, too easy to mock and dismiss. At a church service I attended on Saturday as voting in South Carolina's primary was winding down, the preacher was referring to King Nebuchadnezzar as "Neb Exclamation Point." It didn't even elicit many laughs: Bush was gone, performing worse than polls had predicted, failing even to get into the double digits as he had done in New Hampshire.

He lost out to candidates whose human frailties are far less obvious. Trump only pretends to be offended when someone -- be it Ted Cruz or the pope himself -- attacks him: He has the most fun when that happens. Cruz still grinds out seven campaign stops per day, as he did in Iowa, without breaking a sweat or cutting corners on his oratory, and he seems made of steel. Marco Rubio does his perfectly rehearsed charming boyish act and works feverishly behind the scenes, picking up endorsements and money that would have gone to Bush had he looked a winner.

They are gladiators of the highest caliber. Bush, despite his family history, is just a regular guy. He's not necessarily weak -- he's normal, in the sense of being able to carry on a normal conversation where the others perform.

Clearly, Republican voters don't want normality, though they flirted with it in New Hampshire. They want a show and a sword fight. They may not like it when the winner claims his spoils, though.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net