LACONIA, N.H. — Sitting on his campaign bus — laptop, turkey jerky, and coffee all nearby — Jeb Bush was befuddled over his campaign’s failure to capture more attention from the news media.
“I could drop my pants,” he said in an interview. “Moon the whole crowd. Everybody would be aghast, except the press guys would never notice.”
Bush is entering the final days of his last stand, and hints of exasperation are leaking through his cheerful, stoic demeanor. Without a major comeback in New Hampshire on Tuesday, or, absent that, a Bush miracle in South Carolina later this month, he will face increasing pressure to bow out of the race.
Bush’s problems are infinitely greater than the bored “press guys” staring at their smartphones in the back of his town hall gatherings. It’s the tectonic shifts in the Republican Party. It’s the voters, with their white-hot anger at the status quo. It’s his family name. It’s him.
Bush began a year ago at the helm of a steamship of a campaign, with all the advantages that his family pedigree, corporate political money, and establishment backing conferred. But now, just a few days before the New Hampshire vote, he seems like he’s alone in a rowboat, furiously pushing against the current.
Bush and his aides say he could still bounce back here. In quiet conversations at the Concord Courtyard Marriott, they seize on any bit of good news and hope for a breakthrough moment they hope that New Hampshire — with its history of primary night surprises — can deliver.
But if things don’t work out that way, the failures of Bush’s quest to extend the family dynasty could serve as a crushing referendum on the mainstream Republican establishment.
It’s not just Bush who is in danger of being capsized by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, but also Ohio Governor John Kasich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. If they continue to falter, the so-called “establishment lane’’ in the election will open up for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the young, less tested former ally of Bush who burst onto the national scene in 2010 as an insurgent Tea Party figure.
“We’re fractured,” Bush said in the interview aboard his bus. “We have varying forms of conservative thought. And then you have this Trump phenomenon that is not ideological per se.”
“We’re moving to something,” he added. “I’m not sure what it is in terms of long term — how politics and how parties, what role they’ll play. Are we actually at the beginning of it? I don’t know.”
While Bush downplays the need for a victory here (“We have a national campaign . . . I will fight on”), his aides privately concede that time is short, and the window to gain some momentum is narrowing.
They say they are no longer threatened by Christie, but they view Kasich as a strong candidate. From a strategic perspective, they say Rubio has run a near-flawless, if not especially inspiring, campaign, avoiding gaffes and sticking to his script.
But even while Bush views Rubio’s lack of experience as an Achilles' heel, his own struggles revolve around his inability to sell his leadership experience — which includes two terms as Florida governor — on the stump.
Bush was a one-time mentor to Rubio and now seems taken aback that the man 18 years his junior is gaining while he remains stalled. Bush has ratcheted up his criticism of the Florida senator, saying that he has a paper-thin resume and that a vote for him is a risky bet for Republicans.
“He’s gifted. He’s talented. He’s a really good politician,” Bush said. “But when he himself has a hard time explaining what his record of accomplishment is . . . there’s a risk there. Just like there was with Barack Obama.”
Bush does have the financial resources to continue. He still had $7.6 million in his account while the super PAC supporting him had $58.6 million as of Jan. 1, according to recent campaign finance filings.
Bush also has settled into a more comfortable approach to his family tree. In early phases of his campaign, he unveiled a logo without the surname — simply, “Jeb!” — that spoke to his desire to blaze his own path, separate from presidents 41 and 43, his father and brother. Now he’s more fully embracing their legacy and name.
Thursday night in Derry he shared a stage with his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, who praised her son as “the nicest, wisest, most caring, loyal, disciplined — but he’s not a bragger; we don’t allow that.”
Bush responded with a taste of his dry sense of humor that doesn’t always translate. In a joke that triggered boos, Bush referenced his mother’s role as a disciplinarian, saying, “She’s not as great as everybody thinks she is.”
Bush has not brought in his brother, George W. Bush, who lost the state in the 2000 GOP primary to John McCain. His campaign aides say they are laying groundwork for the former president to get involved in friendlier territory, in South Carolina.
“I have to be who I am. I’m not going to change who I am,” Bush said in the interview. “I think authenticity is really important in a time of deep disaffection.”
“Who do you want?” he added. “The guy who yells and screams and insults people? Or the guy that actually listens, to be able to solve a lot of problems that exist.”
In school auditoriums, convention halls, and diners across New Hampshire in recent days, Bush has been selling his promise of practical problem-solving, a vision of government as a force of good in people’s lives. That is the Bush way.
His father put his political career on the line to raise taxes in a bipartisan budget deal (and paid the price in 1992, when he failed to win a second term). His brother worked with the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy on education reform, on immigration overhaul, and on a grand compromise to expand Medicare to cover prescription drugs.
But the Bush pitch now seems out of step with the longings of many conservative primary voters, who tell pollsters they want to shake things up.
Standing near the back of the room in Derry, underneath murals of swimming bears, Bill Manning shook his head.
“I’ve got nothing against him,” the 73-year-old electrician said. “But I’m tired of Bushes. Anybody not establishment might rock the boat. And that’s what it needs: A lot of rocking.”
As Bush spoke in Derry on Thursday night, Trump held a rally across the state in Portsmouth, revving up the crowd with coarse language. “And you can tell them to go [expletive] themselves,” he said of companies moving overseas to pursue better tax rates.
Bush said he understands the desire for change, the anger Trump is channeling — “People are latching onto it because they just don’t see things working for them,” he said. But he rues what he sees as a shortage of substance, of solutions, of common decency.
“If Donald Trump wins the nomination, he will have hijacked the conservative party for his own ambitions,” he said. “He’s shifted all of his views to morph into this populist figure. But he’s not a conservative.”
While Trump rallies are often an issue-free-zone and feature little beyond the bumper-sticker-ready slogan “Make America Great Again,” Bush hands out 47-page glossy brochures that go through his plans on regulatory reform, defense, and cybersecurity.
Bush supporters say they like that he’s measured and thoughtful, and that he offers a dose of substance that can border on the wonky. They say such proposals are refreshing in a debate that is often dominated by personal attacks and big egos.
“He seems to have a plan,” said Fred Miller, a 51-year-old Republican from Londonderry with a Bush sign, sticker, and button. “He’s calm; he’s calculated in his answers. He doesn’t get involved in the back and forth rhetoric.”
The other night, Bush stood in the middle of about 200 people at a resort here on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee, giving extended remarks on charter schools and climate change, on the national debt and on drugs.
One voter stood to compliment his serious nature, and another his civility.
“Donald Trump today, someone told me, used profanity three times in his speech,” Bush said. “Now look, I’m not an old fuddy-duddy. But this should be at least PG-rated. I mean, we’re running for president of the United States. There are children who listen to this stuff. We’re trying to inspire the next generation.”
In Laconia, moments of boredom settled on the crowd as he spoke about the budget (“The cost curve has not been diminished”), or the extent of Secret Service protection (“It was five-X more than when my dad was president”), or even his faith (“I don’t believe in putting your faith in a lockbox”).
“Thank you,” he said after speaking for eight minutes straight, “for allowing me such a long answer.”
While Cruz talks about “carpet-bombing’’ the Islamic State, Bush urges caution.
“We don’t need to carpet-bomb anymore. We have very good precision weapons,” he said during a town hall event in Laconia. “I know you’re supposed to be strong and you’re pounding your chest like you’re Tarzan out here. But that’s not leadership.”
Shortly after the remark, a woman near the front stood up with a microphone.
“I thank you for the civility,” Patty Giguere told Bush. “I think you’re a calm voice in all the craziness this year. . . . I like what you’re saying. I think you’re a gentleman.”
But she expressed dismay over the negative onslaught pushed into her mailbox by Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Bush. She wanted him to disavow the ads and the mailers. Bush would not do so.
As Giguere, a 61-year-old teacher, packed up and prepared to leave that night, she left unconvinced. The woman who craves civility would not be supporting the GOP’s most civil candidate.
“He’s a nice man, gentlemanly,” she said. “He might have been president if his brother wasn’t.”