Jeb Bush needed to take a breath. All day he’d been shuttled from one event to another—talking to a crowd of influential and wealthy farmers, meeting in private with supporters at a restaurant in Des Moines, and finally, attending a more public gathering two hours to the east.
“Just get up here and stand up here with me,” Bush told a man at a Cedar Rapids Pizza Ranch—the former Florida governor’s last stop of the day.
There had been some awkwardness in the crowded room, but the moment provided enough of a break—and a bit of laughter—to loosen up the crowd. Then Bush swung into campaign mode.
“This is the greatest country on the face of the Earth, and now we need to start acting like it,” he told the crowd. “If we get beyond here today, I’ll be back here a lot and I’ll be asking for your support.”
On this Iowa swing, Bush showed that when he had a question to prompt him, he was good, but when he had a roomful of people lined up to ask questions, he was even better.
In the question-and-answer sessions at the Iowa Ag Summit earlier in the day, the open-ended queries posed a bit of a problem for Bush. He tended to run on, and event organizer/emcee Bruce Rastetter didn’t exactly jump in to stop anyone from rambling. And his own sit-down with Bush ended on an awkward note.
“Well, it looks like we’re out of time,” Rastetter said, half-interrupting Bush.
“Oh, darn it,” the politician replied.
From the agricultural summit it was off to Jethro’s BBQ ’n Jambalaya, a restaurant with a backwoods name—albeit none of the character—in the rather plastic Des Moines suburb of Waukee. The place was packed—although it was unclear how many people were there for Bush, or for the combination of mediocre chain-restaurant food and college basketball.
“I had to ask the waitress who he was,” said one woman, sitting at the bar as Bush met with supporters in a backroom. No press was allowed.
Others knew. Roberta Gamble spotted Bush as soon as he walked through the door—although self-described Reagan Republicans such as Gamble probably are more attuned than most to the presence of the GOP’s royal family. Gamble’s husband, Mark, is a fan. “I like what he’s done with school vouchers,” he said.
Gamble family friend Michaela Shupe, however, is a Ben Carson supporter.
“I just think he’s too liberal when it comes to immigration,” she said about Bush, echoing what has been virtually the only conservative sticking point against Jeb in his fledgling campaign.
In reality, Bush isn’t really too anything. His answers to Rastetter’s questions could be described as generally Republican, vaguely conservative. There weren’t really any big applause lines for Bush at the summit, and definitely no fireworks such as there were with Chris Christie, who delighted the crowd by shooing away a protester, saying it was good to see someone from New Jersey. Supposedly mild-mannered Iowans, the farmers listening to Christie do his best dick-move dismissal let out a pretty large cheer.
Bush didn’t provide such moments, and he doesn’t appear to be as willing to go on the offensive against his fellow Republicans as he is to go against Hillary Clinton, highlighting what he considers the disparity in transparency between the two. If he runs, Bush said at Pizza Ranch—noting that nothing is yet official—he would operate a “hopeful, optimistic campaign,” and, “I’m not going to tear down my fellow Republicans.”
He may not have to. The very thing that Shupe, the Ben Carson fan, criticized Bush for, and the major hurdle in front of him in socially conservative in Iowa, is what may make him a strong general-election candidate. He’s safe, and he’s already a relative moderate compared with any of the other wannabes who bounced all over Iowa this weekend, testing out jokes and lining up donors.
At Pizza Ranch, a few talking points emerged for the second time Saturday.
The United States is “spending more money per student than any other country, besides two or three,” Bush said.
“My experience as governor,” he added in regard to education, “makes me compelled to believe this should be a national priority—not a federal program, but a national priority.”
Bush also previewed a platform that stands against net neutrality, alongside Israel, and for executive orders—depending on who’s signing them.
“Undoing by executive order the things that have been done by executive order, that’s legitimate,” Bush said, announcing his intention to undo Obama’s immigration decree if elected in 2016.
But Bush, after a vanilla performance at the ag summit, an uneventful series of grip-and-grins at Jethro’s and his brief break to stand next to the man at Pizza Ranch, finally got enough sustained applause to be able to breathe easy for a moment.
“Approve the [Keystone] XL pipeline for cryin’ out loud,” he said.
That prompted head-nodding, raucous clapping—and a brief smile from Bush.