WASHINGTON - What could be a make or break week for Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush began with a rally in Tampa, Florida, Monday, where the former Florida governor promised to highlight his record as a reform-minded conservative.
Bush told an enthusiastic crowd that his priorities include “reforming government, disrupting the status quo” and “lifting people up, not tearing them down.”
Bush, once thought to be the frontrunner for his party’s nomination, embarked on a bus tour of Florida and the early primary states of South Carolina and New Hampshire in an effort to reboot his flagging campaign.
Many in the crowd at the Tampa rally held signs proclaiming the theme of the tour – “Jeb Can Fix It!”
Bush told the Tampa crowd he’s gotten a lot of advice since his much-criticized debate performance last week but he also said he would not compromise his core principles.
“Number one, I can’t be something I’m not, and two, getting things done isn’t about yelling into a camera or regurgitating soundbites free of substance," he said. "Leadership is about telling people not what they want to hear, but what they must hear. It’s not about tearing people down but bringing people together.”
Bush hopes to regain momentum after a debate performance that alarmed political pundits and disappointed many of his supporters.
Campaigning in Iowa over the weekend, Bush acknowledged he will need to turn things around fast. “I have enough humility to know that I’ve got to get better."
Bush spent time in New Hampshire following the latest debate, trying to win over voters one at a time by shifting the focus away from the debates.
“It’s not about the big personalities on the stage. It’s not about performance. It’s about leadership and the leader today in this country needs to be a unifier,” he said.
Rise of Carson, Trump
Bush has long been considered the favorite of establishment Republicans. But his poll ratings have fallen with the rise of outsiders who appeal to conservatives like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Bush also recently cut campaign staff and salaries, adding to the perception that his campaign was on the ropes. His growing frustration has been evident on the campaign trail.
“I got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that,” he said.
Despite his famous name, Bush has struggled to connect with voters, said American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman.
“Jeb Bush has run one of the worst campaigns in modern history. He not only commits gaffes, he doesn’t seem committed to the campaign. He’s not crisp, he’s not sharp, he’s not appealing,” Lichtman said.
Even supporters like former Congressman Vin Weber are both baffled and concerned.
“But it’s true that he’s not sort of consistent with the mood of the country at this particular time," Weber said. "Because we thought, those of us supporting him, most of us thought he would probably be the frontrunner right now and he’s lagging behind.”
Bush has also had difficulty in separating himself from his famous family’s political legacy, said analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
“Bush has the dilemma right now that he is trapped in a Bush body and simply cannot and will not gain the kind of distance from the policies of his brother and father that is required if you are going to get back to a dominant position,” Ornstein said.
But given the Bush name and wealthy supporters, Bush could still mount a comeback, said Republican strategist John Feehery.
“I wouldn’t count Jeb Bush out. He’s got a lot of money, a lot of money on hand, a big Super Pac [political action committee] and a lot of organization that none of the other candidates can really match,” Feehery said.
Bush’s next opportunity to rebound will come in the fourth Republican debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 10.