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July 25th, 2017

Insight

Bush's journey from front-runner to straggler

Albert Hunt

By Albert Hunt

Published Feb. 1, 2016

Bush's journey from front-runner to straggler

The biggest stories of this young political year are the surprising surges of the outsider presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Close behind is the possible collapse of the once-formidable front- runner, Jeb Bush.

Only a year ago, the Washington cognoscenti, the less politically sophisticated big donors and the London oddsmakers all figured that the son and brother of presidents was a solid favorite to clinch the Republican nomination. Six months ago, the former Florida governor thought he had a real shot at winning Iowa, the first nominating contest. Yet as the state's voters prepare to gather for the traditional caucuses on Monday night, he barely registers in the polls.

There is already a debate in Republican circles over what went wrong: Was he just a bad candidate? Was he ill-served by the chief strategist of the richly funded Bush super-PAC? Or was this just a bad year for any establishment figure?

In the first half of 2015, when Bush could have dominated the agenda, his campaign essentially had one message: financial shock and awe, we'll have more money than anyone ever. Little effort went into defining the candidate, or reminding voters that Bush, who'd been out of office for almost a decade, was a conservative reform governor. Policy expertise, including from influential social right leaders, was brushed aside.

The campaign then decided that the super PAC, Right to Rise, run by Bush's longtime confidant Mike Murphy, would be the prime player.

The PAC has spent $70 million on broadcast, cable and radio advertising, almost 30 percent of the total spent by all Republican and Democratic candidates and their political action committees.

The returns, the numbers suggest, have been minimal. Even ads that created buzz -- attacks on Senator Marco Rubio that poked fun at his fancy boots or pointed out his flip-flopping on issues -- didn't help Bush or hurt their target.

They did create bitterness among establishment Republicans, who complain, privately, that while Bush insisted that he was the only one who was taking on the front-runner Trump, Murphy was going after Rubio.

The tension with Rubio, a fellow Floridian who had been a Bush protege, also illustrated Bush's weakness as a candidate. In an early debate, he sought to attack Rubio's spotty attendance in the Senate. Rubio turned the attack back on a flat-footed Bush.

He also stumbled over whether he would have supported the ill-fated war in Iraq waged by his brother, President George W. Bush. He should have anticipated this potential pitfall, but he was never able to effectively deal with the legacy of his brother, who some top Iowa Republicans say is a big albatross in the state. (The Bush camp hopes that won't be the case elsewhere. They are reportedly planning to have the 43rd president campaign for his younger sibling in South Carolina.)

But Bush suffered most from being savaged by Trump, who derided him, insulted his family ties and mocked him with the lasting epithet that he was "low energy."

Bush has improved as a candidate. In Iowa this past week, he was more substantive than most of his rivals on domestic issues and national security. But when he riffs on topics such as Civil Service reform, the Trump shot echoes.

In the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll released this weekend, Bush is in a four-way tie for seventh place with only 2 percent, and has the highest negatives of any Republican candidate.

If that reflects his showing in the caucuses, he will have to come back and beat the other establishment candidates in New Hampshire next week; otherwise, all pathways to the nomination will be closed.

The campaigning in Iowa and the multitude of debates provided evidence that Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich are the two Republican candidates best prepared to govern.

That quality appears to matter little in this crazy year.


Previously:
01/27/15: Another election, more phony promises on taxes
01/19/15: How Cruz supporters differ from Trump fans
12/23/15: Why Trump and Cruz aren't Forbes or Cain
12/21/15: Speaker Ryan sails through the easy part
11/25/15: As the GOP candidates emerge Hillary's weaknesses will be revealed
11/05/15: OK, candidates: Ask the questions yourselves. Seriously
10/28/15: Imagine an endgame of Cruz vs. Rubio
10/26/15:Ted Cruz has a Ben Carson problem in Iowa
10/20/15: Will Paul Ryan follow James Polk's playbook?
10/20/15: If only Trey Gowdy could meet with Sam Ervin
10/13/15: Voters don't like revisiting the trials and tribulations of Clintonland --- but that doesn't mean Hillary can't win
09/23/15: Why Jimmy Carter couldn't win the South today
09/17/15: Gov. John Kasich's standout record in Ohio
09/03/15: Republicans chart 4 paths to stopping Trump
08/31/15: Here's how Biden-Warren sort of makes sense
08/28/15:Trump upends New Hampshire's substantive tradition
08/26/15:Jeb Bush is hugging the wrong president George
08/24/15: Underestimating Ted Cruz? That's a mistake
08/19/15: US holds steady in a world of economic trouble
08/12/15: Who will capture Iowa conservatives after Trump?
08/10/15: Debate fireworks that won’t make much impact
07/29/15: A plea for conservatives to speak from the heart
07/09/15: Ex-Im Bank's undeserved rap for crony capitalism
06/24/15: All presidential candidates should be in debates
06/03/15: Foreign policy traps await Republicans and Hillary
06/01/15: It's small stuff that wrecks presidential runs
02/04/15: Can Walker be president without a college degree?

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Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau. Hunt hosts the weekly television show "Political Capital with Al Hunt." In his four decades at the Wall Street Journal, he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor, and wrote the weekly column "Politics & People." Hunt also directed the Journal's polls, was president of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a board member of the Ottaway community newspapers. He was a panelist on the CNN programs "The Capital Gang" and "Novak, Hunt & Shields." He is co-author of books on U.S. elections by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.

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