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N.H. Republicans slow to rally around Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush answered questions after speaking at a business roundtable in Portsmouth, N.H., on Wednesday. Brian Snyder/REUTERS

NEW CASTLE, N.H. — If presidential hopeful Jeb Bush was counting on his famous family’s legacy in New Hampshire to help him, he has to be disappointed.

Some influential Granite State Republicans who in the past enthusiastically backed Bush family candidates — such as Jeb Bush’s father in 1988 and brother in 2000 — so far are not offering that same support to the newest Bush on the political scene.

One is former US representative Charlie Bass. Two generations of the Bass family backed Bush campaigns for president, governor, and the Senate. When George W. Bush launched his campaign for president in 1999, then-US Representative Bass stood at his side in front of a crowd of thousands on the New Castle Common.

Former senator Judd Gregg, who also hails from two generations of Bush supporters, isn’t yet on board with Jeb Bush, either.


Nor is John H. Sununu, who served as George H.W. Bush’s White House chief of staff. And his son, former US senator John E. Sununu, is backing John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.

An aide to the Bush campaign said privately that the lack of backing from previous family supporters isn’t necessarily troubling given that the family dynasty and front-runner status hurt George W. Bush in 2000, when he lost New Hampshire to John McCain.

As both Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton make their second visits to New Hampshire this week, the legacies of the political network their families created in the first-in-the-nation primary state could not be more different. The Clinton network has never been as dominant in the Granite State as it is today, while the Bush network — if you can call it that — has faded.

“There isn’t a Bush network, and no one has been working the grass roots for years — if ever,” said David Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP consultant who was White House director of political affairs under President George H.W. Bush.

This is a particular problem for Bush as he tries to downplay expectations in Iowa, which hosts the caucuses that kick off the presidential nominating contest early next year. This raises the bar for Bush to do well in New Hampshire, where the state’s more moderate brand of politics should better align with his reputation.


No one is suggesting that there is no lingering love for the Bush family in New Hampshire. Bill Wagner, who met the Bush family when he was a Portsmouth city councilor, is leaning toward supporting Jeb Bush. And two of his children went on to work in George W. Bush’s administration.

“I know everyone sees this election as being between the Clintons and the Bushes, and people think that is a bad thing. But I think Jeb shouldn’t hide from his family,” Wagner said. “They are good people.”

By some accounts, Bush — eager to have his own identity — may not be particularly inclined to court support from old family friends.

Two people familiar with Bush’s strategy in New Hampshire said he has tried to create a new team in New Hampshire as a way not only to dampen expectations in the state’s primary but also to create a new political identity.

Last week, Bush struggled with questions on his brother’s decision to authorize the war in Iraq, giving varied answers on whether, in hindsight, it was the right decision. At a Wednesday luncheon in Portsmouth, he acknowledged “it got a little bumpy” for him.

But when asked about his family, Bush told reporters, “I am not going to be in the witness protection program. I am a Bush and I am proud of it. I love my mom, I love my dad, I love my brother. I mean what am I supposed to say?”


His problems come as New Hampshire polls show the one-time front-runner receding into a large GOP field. A Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm College poll of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters showed Bush dropped five percentage points since February. A Quinnipiac University poll showed Bush in seventh place in Iowa.

It’s those kind of numbers in Iowa — plus Bush’s recent announcement that he would skip the state’s straw poll — that could make New Hampshire a pivotal state for him. Former N.H. attorney general Tom Rath, who was a prominent supporter of George W. Bush in the state, said Jeb had to do “very well” in the New Hampshire.

“New Hampshire is the primary of the center-right,” Rath said. “He has to be first or a really close second. If he doesn’t, not only does he not win, but he allows another center-right candidate like Rubio or Chris Christie to get a campaign going that could take him out.”

Bush adviser Rich Killion vowed that if Bush becomes an official candidate, “I think New Hampshire will find a person who will be here as much, if not more than, anyone.”

Bush will remain in the state Thursday, attending a breakfast with state legislators in Concord and a lunch event in Salem.

According to Carney, there is another path to the nomination. Given the role of money and the primary calendar, Bush could muddle through the first four contests and still compete on Super Tuesday and the Florida primary. The GOP field is so large — as many as 19 candidates are running or considering it — the campaigning could drag on for months.


“This contest is about getting delegates to the national convention, not winning specific states,” said Carney.

That’s completely different from the election that his brother faced in 2000. George W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses and placed second in the New Hampshire primary, sewing up the nomination soon afterward.

At the start of that campaign, George W. Bush traveled from the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, to the New Castle Common with the family legacy intact. Throughout the primary, he traveled the state with Rath, Bass, Gregg, and the Sununus in a motorcoach emblazoned with the words “New Hampshire is Bush Country.”

There is no bus to pass off to Jeb Bush. It was sold at an auction in 2008.

James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.