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How the Bush camp plans to save his candidacy

Jeb Bush took questions at a campaign event in Milford, N.H.Cheryl Senter/The New York Times

HIALEAH, Fla. — Jeb Bush and his supporters still have a pile of money to spend — remnants of $100 million raised when he seemed early last year to be a sure bet. They have an expansive ground operation in New Hampshire. And allies have just begun a new ad campaign in Iowa.

But nothing they have tried so far has lifted Bush’s terrible poll numbers. And with just four weeks remaining until voting begins, Bush needs to do something to save his candidacy.

It may be too late: Other campaigns appear to have counted him out altogether. But, in extensive interviews over the past week, aides and key allies to Bush described a long-shot plan to pull off what seems all but impossible — winning the Republican nomination for president. The plan has six elements:


■  Stay on the attack

In late 2015, Bush called Donald Trump “a jerk,” “unhinged,” and a “chaos candidate.”

Expect more of the same in 2016, when Bush plans to aim his most aggressive attacks largely at Trump and Hillary Clinton. Though he was initially slow to take on Trump, the real estate billionaire turned politician has proved a useful foil. Bush, the former Florida governor, has cast himself as the only Republican strong enough to stand up to Trump.

“He wakes up in his pajamas and watches the TV shows on Saturday and Sunday,” Bush said Monday, at a Cuban restaurant in Hialeah. “Donald Trump is not serious about being a candidate.”

Yet Bush has also shown himself willing to criticize other contenders from the party’s establishment wing: Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. On a swing though New Hampshire in December, he knocked Christie’s economic stewardship of his state, and Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Bush, on Tuesday released its first ad, for $1.4 million in Iowa, that directly attacks Rubio, for his Senate attendance record.


Right to Rise has roughly $60 million available to spend as it heads into 2016.

■  Avoid embarrassment in Iowa

Bush knows he is not likely to win Iowa. He just can’t lose there too badly.

In Iowa, Bush has two main goals: finish no lower than fifth (third place is the optimistic goal) and, more important, beat Christie.

■  Win New Hampshire — or at least make the top 3

Expect Bush to practically move to New Hampshire — the state where loyal donors are expecting a turnaround, and where Bush’s strategists believe he needs to finish ahead of Christie, Governor John R. Kasich of Ohio, and Rubio, to emerge as the establishment’s alternative to Trump or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

The campaign has five offices and 20 paid staff members throughout the state, with 20 more coming this month. Bush plans to spend at least half of his time there, with trips every week before the Feb. 9 primary, and he recently called it his “second home.”

Right to Rise has reserved an additional roughly $10 million in airtime in the state, including two Super Bowl ads, and the Bush campaign plans to go on the air there Monday, and not come down until the primary.

The campaign is also microtargeting voters, hitting supporters of the Second Amendment with a gun-focused message and those who worry about terrorism with a national security pitch.


■  Woo Senator Lindsey Graham

Throughout the campaign, Bush had made a point of checking in with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina weekly. On the morning Graham dropped out of the race for president, Bush was ready with the hard sell.

Bush immediately sent him a message, and the two men spoke on the phone later that day, when Bush made his pitch — that he was best prepared to be commander in chief and most qualified on Graham’s key issue, national security.

Graham has publicly said he has no plans to endorse anyone right now. Many believe that privately, however, he is strongly leaning toward Bush.

■  The big brother, and the Bush alumni network

Another key for Bush in South Carolina is his older brother, former president George W. Bush.

Though no final decision has been made, aides say the campaign is most likely to deploy the former president in the state — where he remains popular — sometime after the New Hampshire primary.

But how and where to use the 43rd president is a vexing question for the campaign. George Bush is certain to remind voters that his brother hails from a political dynasty. And he could force Jeb Bush to confront the decision to invade Iraq, an issue the candidate stumbled over early on. Aides further worry that the former president, a charismatic campaigner, could outshine his brother on the stump.

■  The advertising blitz

Bush’s super PAC has spent tens of millions in television ads that have largely failed to help his standing in the polls. But the group will continue the ad campaign, keeping its focus on Trump, but also beginning to contrast Bush with his rivals for the party’s more mainstream base.


Right to Rise has started a voter identification and canvassing program in New Hampshire, and in addition to television ads, it is putting money behind radio, mail, and digital in the early states, including some in the so-called SEC Primary on March 1. The group also reserved a nearly $17 million television ad buy for the March states.