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Jeb Bush Finds His Stride In New Hampshire, But Is It Too Late?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a campaign event Monday in Portsmouth, N.H.
Robert F. Bukaty
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a campaign event Monday in Portsmouth, N.H.

Jeb Bush may finally be hitting his stride. The former Florida governor will find out Tuesday night whether that's too little, too late to save his White House hopes.

In the closing days of the New Hampshire race, Bush has seemed comfortable and more relaxed on the trail, as though he might even be enjoying it — and finally running that "joyful" campaign he imagined more than a year ago.

His final event Monday night in Portsmouth had more than 450 people who braved the increasingly treacherous, snow-covered roads. Bush even carried more chairs in himself as the room filled up. Wrapping up the town hall, he reminisced on the many stops he has made in the Granite State over the past eight months, and reminded voters they could rewrite the conventional wisdom that wrote him off many months ago.

"You can change the course of anything," Bush said. "You're the first-in-the-nation primary. If you don't think the pundits are right — the obituaries that have been written about all the candidates, including me, that it's all done, it's all figured out — if you disagree with that, you can reset this race tomorrow. You have that power."

Finding His Footing On The Campaign Trail

It's not that his basic pitch to voters has changed. He's still emphasizing his leadership as governor of a major state and isn't afraid to talk about his immigration plan and support for education reforms that are unpopular with many conservatives.

Bush seemed rusty when he first got back on the campaign trail a year ago. He'd been out of office for nearly a decade and wasn't used to the more intense glare in the age of social media and the 24/7 news cycle. But maybe with the once-lofty expectations for his vaunted campaign gone, Bush has finally been able to put that exclamation point on his lagging campaign.

"He's the Jeb we all know and love," former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said here Monday evening. "He's very loose. And when he's loose, he's on fire."

Bush helps put out additional chairs at his final New Hampshire town hall in Portsmouth on Monday evening.
Don Gonyea / NPR
Bush helps put out additional chairs at his final New Hampshire town hall in Portsmouth on Monday evening.

Weatherford has been stumping for Bush in the closing days and introduced him at his final Portsmouth rally. He said that among the core team, they've noticed a marked shift in energy emanating from Bush himself.

"This is a real movement," Weatherford argued. "It's taken a while to catch on. And you know what — cream always rises, and sometimes it rises late. He's getting better every day."

Some voters are starting to notice, too. Tom Eifler of Atkinson attended a town hall in Salem on Sunday morning. He saw the former governor two months ago and had mixed impressions. He came away undecided, still trying to choose between Bush and the other governors — Ohio's John Kasich and New Jersey's Chris Christie.

But after Monday, he walked away a Bush convert.

"At that time, he almost seemed disinterested," Eifler said of the earlier Bush event. "He was great today. He was very enthusiastic, very thorough and just terrific."

Sometimes that's what happens when candidates have their backs up against the wall. All they have is themselves, they let go of their caution and, as a result, wind up appearing to be better, more authentic candidates.

But it hasn't been all polish for Bush in the final days. A week ago, he was widely derided when a clip went viral of him telling the audience to "please clap" after one of his more emphatic lines.

Embracing The Bush Name

Overall, though, Bush has rectified some of the stumbles that plagued him early on. He bumbled an answer last spring about his brother's foreign policy, as to whether he would have invaded Iraq. He had difficulty separating himself from his family name, but now he's leaning into it.

Asked by an audience member Saturday why young voters should vote for him given his dynastic political last name, he shot back.

"The Bush thing, people are just going to have to get over it," he said.

Monday night in Portsmouth, he declared: "I'm a Bush. I'm proud of it."

His brother, former President George W. Bush, is even starring in a superPAC ad for him running in New Hampshire and South Carolina:

His mother, Barbara — who famously said before Jeb officially embarked on his presidential bid that the country had "had enough Bushes" — campaigned for him last week here in New Hampshire.

Taking On Trump

More than any other candidate, Donald Trump knocked Bush off his game. He struggled with how to respond to Trump's put-downs in debates, and often seemed frustrated that he had to share the spotlight with someone he deemed not serious.

Lately, he's speaking out harder against the real estate mogul on the campaign trail, and he effectively attacked him in Saturday night's GOP debate on the issue of eminent domain. It was one of the first times a Bush line against Trump seemed to stick.

"He wants to be a tough guy," Trump said in response to Bush highlighting Trump's attempt at buying out a woman in Atlantic City who fought him and didn't want to move.

Bush fired back: "How tough is it to take away property from an elderly woman?"

It resonated with voters here.

"Congratulations on your debate performance the other night," Brandon Daley, who is active duty Air Force, told Bush at the Portsmouth town hall. "That was fantastic!"

"You want to hear my views on eminent domain again?" Bush said, laughing.

Stakes Are Highest For Bush

But the importance Bush's team has put on New Hampshire is no laughing matter. It raises the stakes for him even more Tuesday night. Bush's campaign and the superPAC supporting him, Right to Rise, have spent millions of dollars here, saturating the airwaves, stuffing mailboxes and knocking on doors.

Polls haven't shown a consistent second place finisher. In some, Bush trails Marco Rubio, the young Florida senator, and Kasich. Christie, who has spent the majority of his time here, could have some momentum, too, after his effective debate performance Saturday night.

Bush doesn't have to win here, and polls show that's unlikely. His foe Trump still has comfortable double-digit leads heading into voting Tuesday. But finishing behind more than one of those "establishment"-lane candidates would likely be fatal to Bush's campaign.

When Bush reorganized his campaign last fall and made cuts, much of his staff was redeployed to New Hampshire, another sign of how critical the Granite State is to either validating or vanquishing his White House hopes.

He is hoping that a strong close will make the difference, especially in a state where as much as half of the electorate were still undecided going into Election Day, according to polls.

At the Portsmouth rally, Mike Thiel of nearby Rye was among those still on the fence. He was weighing his options among the governors. After hearing Bush, he walked away impressed.

"He's always struck me as a very competent person," Thiel said, "and that was reinforced by tonight's meeting."

Even with that praise though, Thiel said he's probably leaning more toward Kasich.

Gayle Richard, also from Rye, came into the Portsmouth town hall undecided — and left saying she would cast her ballot for Bush.

"He does better in a smaller forum than he does on the stage," Richard said. "I think he gets riled up when he's in a debate somehow, and he can't get the point across that he wants to. Tonight, I think he did a great job explaining to people what he's going to do for the country, and I think he can do it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.