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George W. Bush returns to campaign trail for Jeb

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George W. Bush (center) and his wife, Laura, joined Jeb Bush (left) in North Charleston, S.C., on Monday night.Matt Rourke

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former president George W. Bush inserted himself forcefully into his brother's flagging presidential campaign Monday, praising Jeb Bush's "quiet conviction" and "humble faith" before a cheering crowd of more than 2,500 voters.

The Presidents' Day rally topped a weekend of open warfare between Bush and Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who continued aggressively attacking the legacy of Jeb Bush's father and brother in a bid to prevent the younger Bush from catching a wave of support in South Carolina.

Trump's heated rhetoric — and the Bush campaign's response — is turning the South Carolina primary into a referendum not only on Jeb Bush but on his brother's eight-year administration and the family's place in the modern Republican Party.

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George W. Bush's appearance, his first public foray into politics since leaving office seven years ago, could help Jeb Bush battle for a respectable finish in South Carolina in his quest to become the third President Bush. It's unusual for a former president to inject himself so directly into a primary battle, but in this case it's about kin — much as it is for former president Bill Clinton as he campaigns for his wife.

Many of former president Bush's comments seemed directed at Trump, who has in recent appearances belittled George W. Bush's White House legacy, especially in relation to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Without mentioning Trump, the former president walked through his experiences on Sept. 11, reminding the country of the time of turmoil, and of national unity. He talked about the need for sobriety and experience.

"Strength is not empty rhetoric, it is not bluster, it is not theatrics," Bush said. "Real strength — strength of purpose — comes from integrity and character."

"And in my experience, the strongest person isn't usually the loudest one in the room," he continued. "I've seen in my brother a quiet conviction, and a core of conscience that cannot be shaken."

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Wearing a "Jeb!" sticker on his lapel, he also praised his brother's demeanor, saying "Jeb is a man of deep and humble faith, that reveals itself through good works, not loud words.

"These are tough times. And I understand that Americans are angry and frustrated," the former president said. "But we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and frustration."

Trump held an impromptu press conference just hours before — and several miles away from — the rally to slam George W. Bush for his handling of the Iraq war and 9/11, ratcheting up the attacks he made on the debate stage Saturday.

"The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. . . . we weren't safe," Trump said. "What does that mean that he kept the country safe after 9/11? What about during 9/11? I was there. I lost a lot of friends."

It was textbook Trump — trying to dominate coverage just hours before the biggest moment of Bush's campaign.

Jeb Bush, struggling to break free from the bottom of the pack, is girding for a fight, deploying his brother in a state where the Bush legacy could pay huge dividends after months of distancing himself from his family name.

"Jeb finally looked up and realized you gotta play the cards that you're dealt," said Braden Bunch, former chairman of the Sumter County GOP. "There's no way to escape the Bush last name, so embrace it and run with it and recognize that in the past, it has been a powerful tool."

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George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, remain popular in South Carolina, where both won hard-fought primaries.

Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death over the weekend allowed Trump to broaden his anti-Bush rhetoric, criticizing George W. Bush's 2005 appointment of John Roberts to the Supreme Court on the Sunday morning talk shows. As chief justice, Roberts twice preserved President Obama's health care law by siding with the majority in deeming the law constitutional.

In the hours before Monday's rally, Trump further taunted Bush, threatening on Twitter that his attacks will only grow prior to Saturday's Republican primary. And he picked on Jeb Bush's decision to call in his "mommy" and brother for help.

Criticizing former president Bush, who remains beloved in South Carolina among retired members of the military, evangelicals, and business leaders, is a risky strategy for Trump, state party officials said. It will be difficult for Trump to add to his coalition by attacking the last Republican to win the White House, they said.

"He's running a campaign that we've never seen done successfully before," said Bunch, who is unaligned in the race.

David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist, said Trump's comments about George W. Bush are the "kind of inflammatory talk that really doesn't work well down here."

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"We have a reputation for real hardball politics but I don't think saying things like that about past presidents will help you," Woodard said.

Earlier on Monday, former president Bush and his wife, Laura, met with about 100 veterans at an American Legion Post in Columbia. As veterans feasted on barbecue, Bush greeted individuals, stopping at one point to sign a paperback copy of his memoir of his White House years, according to a pool report of the event.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who endorsed Jeb Bush last month after dropping out of the race, introduced the former president on Monday night to a cheering crowd of more than 2,500 voters crowded into a drafty coliseum in North Charleston.

"This is Bush country!" Graham said.

The former president, again in an apparent reference to Trump's anti-establishment rhetoric, told rallygoers: "If serving as president of the United States makes me part of the so-called establishment, I proudly wear that label. There's been a lot of name-calling going on but I'll remind you of something my father told me: Labels are for soup cans."

Some undecided voters said they were drawn to the rally to hear from the former president, hoping some of his charisma would rub off on his brother.

"I'm hoping Jeb shows that fire like his brother used to be," said Wendy Johnson, a 44-year-old who praised George W. Bush's dedication to the military. "I want to support Jeb but there's something holding me back."

Johnson, who plans to see Marco Rubio and Trump in coming days, says she is weighing their stances on national security.

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Several state Republican Party officials said Jeb Bush has little to lose in deploying his family. While he is unlikely to win the first-in-the-South primary, placing second or third could give him momentum going into Florida, which votes March 15.

"At this point it's a wise move for him to use every weapon in his arsenal," said Tim Callanan, GOP chairman from Berkeley County, which encompasses portions of Charleston.

Matt Moore, chairman of the state party, said the campaign has been so unpredictable thus far that it's difficult to gauge what impact former president Bush's appearance will have.

Said Moore: "The politics right now are so topsy-turvy that all of the conventional wisdom is out the window."

Said former President George W. Bush of his brother, Jeb: “[T]he strongest person isn’t usually the loudest one in the room. I’ve seen in my brother a quiet conviction, and a core of conscience that cannot be shaken.”Matt Rourke

Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan. Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.