MANCHESTER, N.H. – Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has staked his flagging presidential bid on a strong performance in this first-in-the-nation primary state, called Monday for New Hampshire voters to “reset” the race.
“The reset has started as of tonight,” Bush said, adding, “Next Tuesday, we’re going to surprise the world.”
Having already written off a solid showing in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, Bush set up what could be the last stand for the man once presumed to be the dominant Republican in the contest. Bush has wagered much of what is left of his comeback prospects on a strong performance in the Feb. 9 primary.
On Monday night, Bush sought to build a firewall, painting as unqualified the three candidates he called most likely to emerge from Iowa. Addressing a crowd of about 300 in a sweltering Alpine Hall, a fiery Bush said of front-runner Donald Trump, “Do you want someone so unstable, so unserious to be commander-in-chief?”
Without naming US senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but in overt references to them, he said, “The two other candidates that are likely to emerge in Iowa are two people that are back-benchers that have never done anything of consequence in their lives. They’re gifted beyond belief, they can give a great speech. But I think it’s time to recognize that maybe what we need is someone who can lead, someone who has a proven record.”
Bush likened the campaign to the script of a dramatic production, acknowledging that under the role he had been assigned, in a year when voters have embraced outsider credentials, “I’m part of the establishment. It’s all been written. We’re all like actors in a play.”
He repeatedly asked the audience to examine his record as two-term governor of Florida and to read the policy proposals his campaign has distributed.
New Hampshire is vital to Bush’s chances after an expectedly weak showing in Iowa. Joining him Monday was US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who dropped his presidential bid in December and has backed Bush.
“They got a chance to reset the election here, give wind to somebody who’s an alternative to Trump and Cruz,” said Graham after leaving the event. “New Hampshire and South Carolina, they can do that, create an alternative.”
One attendee, who said he voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 primaries but had been leaning toward Trump until Bush spoke, said he liked Bush’s résumé.
“I kind of was going with the hype and all that, but he made me kind of think a lot more today,” said Corey Strauss, a systems engineer from Manchester.
The mainstream lane of the party has grown crowded and feisty, as at least four well-credentialed candidates vie for position to launch a square shot at Trump and Cruz.
Two other candidates of that mold, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich, also spent Monday night in New Hampshire.
Bush spoke for a little over an hour on Monday night, sweating along with much of the crowd in a small but packed hall. Graham, who gained little traction in his own campaign, introduced him with a self-deprecating joke, cracking, “So this is what a crowd looks like.”
New Hampshire has played a significant role in the Bush family’s political history, handing his father, George H.W. Bush, two straight primary wins in 1988 and 1992. In 2000, his brother, George W. Bush, lost the primary to US Senator John McCain.
Former governor and US senator Judd Gregg spoke first at Bush’s event, borrowing a well-worn line to brand the state the home of “some real presidential picking rather than corn-picking in Iowa.”
Bill Grimm of Franklin, N.H., a Navy veteran and former bond trader who called himself a committed supporter, said he thought the former Florida governor still had a shot at the nomination if he could escape the state relatively unscathed.
“From a practical standpoint, if he’s in the top three, he’ll be good,” said Grimm, seated in the front row of Bush’s in-the-round performance.