MANCHESTER, N.H. – Jeb Bush, who launched his campaign as his party’s odds-on favorite for the nomination, declared a measure of victory Tuesday as he battled for third place while primary votes were still being counted.
Bush outperformed many handicappers’ late-stage expectations, according to preliminary results late Tuesday, which put Bush squarely in a fight for third place behind billionaire Donald Trump and Governor John Kasich of Ohio.
Needling pundits who had all but declared his bid doomed, Bush told a cheering crowd at Manchester Community College, “While the reality TV star’s still doing well, it looks like you all have reset the race.”
Bush added, “This campaign is not dead; we’re going on to South Carolina.”
Bush’s avoidance of a back-of-the-pack finish helped sustain a campaign that has been supported by a high-dollar super PAC but, almost since its launch, has failed to meet expectations.
Still, Bush backers were sanguine Tuesday night that his resume and ability to appeal to disparate constituencies would sustain his campaign. A signs-of-life showing Tuesday was crucial, several said.
“Jeb has the money to go the distance and certainly through March 15, but it’s tough sledding if you’re out of the top five,” said Rob Gray, a Republican consultant who has advised Bush’s campaign on its New England strategy.
The apparent pileup among the party’s governors and other more mainstream candidates, who have been left an opening by the dominance of Trump, leaves Bush with mixed prospects as the campaign shifts south and west.
A former two-term Florida governor and both son and brother of presidents, Bush brought major advantages into New Hampshire, even if the state had not been overly kind to his family’s political fortunes in the past. Republicans here, as Bush himself has noted during campaign events this year, discarded his father’s 1980 victory in Iowa in favor of Ronald Reagan. And in 2000 the state’s GOP primary voters backed Senator John McCain over his brother.
Even his prospective finish in the top four Tuesday night came at a heavy cost to Bush. He has now irked followers of onetime protégé US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, and both his campaign and its auxiliary super PAC spent heavily in the nation’s first primary state New Hampshire.
Senator Lindsey Graham, who quit his own campaign in December and backed Bush, said Bush would likely fare well in South Carolina, the next state to vote in the GOP primary, promising to “make this a referendum on commander-in-chief.”
“The Bush name is golden in my state,” Graham told reporters. “The Bush people are respected in my state.”
Graham acknowledged that Bush had improved as a candidate as Tuesday neared.
“I just think you get better at this,” he said. “I think Jeb had his back to the wall and he rose to the occasion.”
In the primary’s closing days, Bush expanded his scope of fire from Trump to include Kasich. Like Bush, Kasich had sought to convince primary voters that he was his party’s best chance to compete with Democrats and, like Bush, appeared to finish in the running to be the party’s more moderate alternative.
Bush’s team kept its focus on Kasich as results came in Tuesday. “He doesn’t have a constituency past New Hampshire,” Bush communications director Tim Miller told reporters. “He ran a one-state campaign.”
“He doesn’t have a viable path to the nomination at all,” Miller added.
At the primary-night party in Manchester, Bush’s supporters held out hope he could emerge as the GOP’s last man standing.
“People have been saying this for a long time, but I think Trump is going to go away,” said Norm Olsen, a Portsmouth software manager.