These are critical days for the presidential campaign of Jeb Bush.
The former Florida governor has been traversing Iowa this week, in effect reintroducing himself to voters, with the first-in-the-nation caucuses in that state now less than four months away.
This is not where Bush and his advisers expected to be when he got into the race early this year. Back then he was quickly labeled the front-runner — the man to beat.
No one calls Bush that anymore, with the topsy-turvy, crowded GOP field and its outsiders named Trump, Carson and Fiorina sitting atop the polls.
Bush was the headliner at the annual Ronald Reagan Dinner hosted by the Scott County Republicans on Tuesday night. It was a chance to shine before a crowd of close to 500 in a giant ballroom on the Mississippi River in the town of Bettendorf.
As a barbershop quartet sang old-time harmonies in the hallway outside the main room, a silent auction featuring Republican-themed items provided an example of just how quickly fortunes can change this election season.
An autographed copy of Wisconson Gov. Scott Walker’s book Unintimidated had exactly zero bids. That’s the same Scott Walker who went from the front-runner here in Iowa to dropping out, all in the space of a few months this summer.
For Bush, the audience at this dinner in Iowa’s Quad Cities area should have been right in his sweet spot. These kinds of big events are especially popular among establishment Republicans — the voters who were key to his father and brother, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
But the current candidate Bush, once leading in polls, comes in fourth in the latest survey of Iowa GOP voters from NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist. And that’s got a lot of people offering advice, like 81-year-old Jim Davis, a former Scott County GOP chairman.
“I would like to think that Jeb Bush is gonna get a little bit of steam behind his campaign,” Davis said. “That’s been a disappointing factor up to this point in time — the lack of appeal that he’s had.”
And it’s not that Bush hasn’t been doing all of the things that successful candidates in Iowa usually do. He’s spent a lot of time in the state holding town halls, appearing at candidate forums and the Iowa State Fair, doing interviews with local news outlets. Davis, who’s still undecided but who seemed to be pulling for Bush to do well, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, he’s done the right things but it hasn’t caught on.”
Also attending the Bettendorf event were husband and wife Tim and Marty Berchtold, both 58 years old. The former high school sweethearts have voted Republican their entire adult lives, and Jeb Bush doesn’t make their list of favorites. Tim said, “We like [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio. We like [former HP CEO] Carly Fiorina. We like [Ohio Gov. John] Kasich.” He then added that they also “love the drama of Donald Trump.” Marty jumped in with an emphatic, “I like Donald Trump.”
And then she added something interesting. She’s actually a big fan of the first two Presidents Bush — but not Jeb. “He has the name,” she said, “I just don’t know if he can back it up.”
But is this just about fatigue over another Bush presidency? Berchtold made it clear that’s not her concern.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” she stated emphatically. “I like the name. I just don’t feel he backs it up the way the other two did.”
With outsiders now dominating GOP presidential polls, Jeb Bush has taken to portraying his own “outsider” credentials in his speeches.
“What we need to do is disrupt Washington, to challenge every aspect of what it does, to take it on,” he said to the audience in Iowa that night.
Bush’s remarks were punctuated with applause, but mostly it was polite. There was no raucous cheering. He was well-received, but much of the audience was sizing him up.
The following morning, an hourlong drive south along the Mississippi River, Bush was at a crowded coffee shop in the town of Muscatine. He is at ease in these more casual settings, with an audience no larger than 75.
But during the Q&A session a man asked Bush about the latest polls, and the fact that the very top spots are all occupied by candidates who are all nonpoliticians. Bush replied, “If the election were held in the first week of October, I’d say uh-oh.”
But voting in Iowa isn’t until Feb. 1. Bush added that his “strategy is to share my record. Did you know that I cut taxes every year totaling $19 billion [as governor]?” The man nodded his head yes, prompting Bush to respond, “You do? Great. You’re an informed voter. Most people don’t.”
Then Bush spoke of the nuts and bolts of a campaign in ways candidates don’t often do: “And I’m gonna do something really novel … it’s called advertising.”
In fact, the pro-Bush superPAC Right to Rise USA is now running ads in all of the early voting states, spending almost three times as much on advertising as anyone else. At the coffee shop, Bush went on to joke that he asked some car dealers if ads really help them sell Fords.
Then, speaking not of cars but of his candidacy, Bush added, “I’ve gotta tell the Jeb story. I’ve got to say who I am. I’ve gotta show my heart.”
So this is why the Bush campaign is on this important three-day campaign swing through Iowa: working hard to connect. And to demonstrate to people who he is and what he did as a governor.
And, in something it couldn’t have expected, trying to find new ways to introduce someone who entered the race a household name.