HUDSON, N.H. — Former Florida governor Jeb Bush quickly backtracked on Wednesday after the millionaire candidate for president said in an interview that a key to economic growth is for people “to work longer hours.”
Central to Bush’s campaign pitch is the notion that as president, he will lead the nation to 4 percent annual economic growth. In a livestreamed interview with the editorial board of The New Hampshire Union Leader, Bush said that to achieve that level of growth, people “need to work longer hours.”
“My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive,” Bush said. “Work force participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. [It] means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity, gain more income for their families.”
The Democratic National Committee reacted quickly and jumped on the remark, calling it “easily one of the most out-of-touch comments we’ve heard so far this cycle.” The comment could come back to haunt Bush, given that they came from a member of one of America’s most elite families.
After a town hall meeting at the Hudson VFW, Bush sought to clarify the remarks by saying he was referring only to those working part time who need more access to full time work. He said he was “absolutely not” talking about those already working full time or carrying more than one job.
“You can take it out of context all you want, but high sustained growth means that people will work 40 hours rather than 30 hours, and that by our success they have money and disposable income for their families to decide how they want to spend it rather than getting in line and being dependent on government.”
Roughly 350 people attended the hourlong town hall meeting. Bush took 10 questions on topics that included illegal immigration, the Islamic State, his support for Common Core education standards, and a possible deal with Iran on nuclear weapons.
On Iran, Bush said he was pessimistic that the deal being negotiated with Iran was good for the United States.
“The longer [the negotiation] goes, the more concessions that the Obama administration seems to be giving. So the [Iran] supreme leader is taking his time,” Bush said.
Jerry Pageau, of Merrimack, N.H., attended the town hall and came away impressed, though he wished Bush had held a moment of silence for POWs, given that he was at a VFW hall.
Pageau said he came to see Bush because he remembers taking his children to see the candidate’s father, George H.W. Bush, at a mall in Nashua.
“I wouldn’t say he has my vote yet, but he is up there,” Pageau said of Jeb Bush.
Bush’s path to the White House is to find and persuade more people like Pageau to vote for him in New Hampshire. Bush has spent more time and resources in the Granite State, which is expected to hold the nation’s first presidential primary, than any other.
The state shapes up as a natural fit for Bush, who styles himself as a moderate Republican. In theory, a solid performance could propel him to the primary a few weeks later in his home state of Florida.
His full-day visit Wednesday to New Hampshire was his seventh of this campaign cycle and came on the heels of two days of stumping there during the July Fourth holiday.
“New Hampshire, not Florida, is Bush’s fire wall. If he stumbles here — and never gets off the ground in Iowa — he will be an afterthought by Florida,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
In addition to the town hall, Bush showed up at a coffee shop in Dover, did a Fox News interview, attended a newspaper editorial board meeting, and wooed Republican activists at a hotel in Manchester.
“What Jeb needs to do this summer and fall is to build personal political capital. Right now, he’s well known, but only moderately well liked,” Scala said.
To do that, Scala said that Bush will need to be in the Granite State as much as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
On Thursday, Bush plans to host a retreat for campaign donors in Kennebunkport, Maine, near his family’s compound.James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.