In July, Jeb Bush told a Florida rally crowd he sees himself as the “joyful tortoise” in the battle for the GOP nomination for president.
But under heavy fire from shoot-from-the-lip frontrunner Donald Trump, Bush has some Republicans fretting that “slow and steady” can’t win this rough-and-tumble race.
Trump’s latest line of attack -- pummeling Bush over his presidential brother’s handling of the 9/11 terror strikes -- has the ex-Florida governor on the defensive once more.
Bush has defended his sibling, George W. Bush, by saying he “kept us safe” while president -- ostensibly choosing family ties at the cost of doubling down on a politically dangerous rehash of the attacks and the controversial war that followed.
While the two brawl over who Americans should and shouldn’t trust with the nuclear codes, as of this week, a CNN/ORC poll showed Trump at 27% support, with Bush in fourth place at a measly eight percent; a NBC/WSJ survey had nearly identical results.
“I think Jeb needs to find his inner street at this point,” says former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
While Bush has executive experience to showcase against Trump -- whom Steele calls “a guy who’s never governed anything” -- his team is mistakenly “running a conventional campaign in an unconventional race.”
As for joyfulness, Steele says: “I love the idea of the ‘happy warrior’ -- but at some point, you have to bring some ... vinegar to the fight, too.”
Bush’s Trump troubles are hardly new -- another indication that his team simply hasn’t figured out an effective way to handle the billionaire’s slash-and-burn strategy.
Example: After Trump got personal by saying Bush had allowed his marriage to a Mexican-born woman to influence his views on immigration, Bush confronted Trump during a televised debate, saying he should apologize for dragging her into the fray.
Trump -- surprise! -- blew him off. He later proceeded to characterize Bush as wimpy for letting him off the hook.
Aside from his glee at needling the competition, Trump keeps swinging because he “knows Bush is still a threat despite his anemic poll ratings,” says the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato. “Big Money and Bush World are a potent combination.”
Crucially, Trump is capitalizing on the very same anti-establishment fever that has been Bush’s Achilles heel.
Roger Stone, a former top Trump advisor who still supports his candidacy, says Bush hasn’t been able to spin his way out.
“When [Bush] announced, he said he was going to Washington to take on the ‘pampered elites.’ He IS the pampered elite! I don’t know who wrote that line for his announcement, but they should be shot,” Stone says.
By comparison, “Trump is the ultimate outsider, which is interesting, because even though he’s a billionaire, he’s not the toast of Wall Street; even though he has an Ivy League education, the elites don’t like him. He’s too brash. He’s too over the top.”
On the flip side, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee who is considering backing Bush, says it simply can’t be ignored that there has not been another terror strike since 2001.
Trump’s “attacks are unfair, misguided and dumb,” says King, and “don’t help the party or the country.”
But as to how King thinks Bush should fend off The Donald’s disses?
“I’ll [let] the Bush people figure that out,” he says.Follow Celeste Katz on Twitter @CelesteKatzNYC.