Jeb Bush’s strategy in New Hampshire seemed simple: appeal to the steely primary voters, both fans and doubters, by killing them with kindness.
The former governor headed to the Granite State this weekend, touting his record in Florida and courting comparatively moderate Republican primary voters.
But despite his affable demeanor and mild manners, Jeb Bush generates the kind of ire that only Hillary Clinton can.
At the Saint Anselm College Politics and Eggs breakfast on Friday morning, Bush presented himself as Mr. Nice Guy. He chuckled with attendees about his famous last name, signed the traditional wooden eggs, and bemoaned the acrimoniousness of American politics.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of the political game where you push someone down and make yourself look better,” he said, drawing lengthy applause. “It’s time to reverse that.”
And he exuded Pollyanna-esque levels of optimism.
“I honestly believe that we’re on the verge of the greatest time to be alive,” he said. “I honestly believe that.”
After a short question-and-answer session, the former governor was mobbed by well-wishers looking to get autographs and take selfies with him.
Then he squeezed into a back room for a slightly chaotic press conference and zipped over to the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Nashua.
His speech there, touching on the same themes as his breakfast address—the possibility of dramatic economic growth, the importance of restoring America’s influence on world affairs, and the problem with negative politicking—drew some skepticism.
“I think after the last couple of elections, a lot of us are not looking for a Republican in name only,” said a woman who asked the rambling first question after the speech, “and somebody that claims to be a conservative. And when I say a conservative, I mean a free marketer, somebody who believes in capitalism. I’m just hoping that your candidacy and your platform is going to be more, uh, not trying to appeal to everybody and please everybody and end up pleasing no one. Can you comment on that?”
Bush responded by directing her to his record (“It’s a conservative record, it’s not a Republican in name only record”) and saying he doesn’t feel like he’s getting coronated.
But if skepticism like this takes root—and it certainly might—it could damn Bush’s nascent campaign. While preliminary polls look OK for the former governor, former U.S. senator Judd Gregg notes that the field is wide open and that anyone could surge in the coming months.
One Dartmouth University student, Brian Chen, said he thinks a Bush surge is highly unlikely.
“I think his team has severely underestimated how hostile grassroots Republicans are to him,” he said. “We believe that he really does not represent what we stand for.”
Chen wasn’t there for Bush’s speech but said it got poor reviews.
“I’ve only heard bad things,” he said. “Universally panned. Even people who like him don’t think he did a particularly good job.”
And Dan Hynes, a member of New Hampshire Young Republicans, said he wasn’t impressed with the former governor’s presence in the state.
“On the one hand, he has the name recognition,” he said. “But I think he’s also going to have to overcome bad name recognition. And I’m not seeing a ground campaign much.”
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who hosted a house party for Bush, said the former governor made a good impression in his one-on-one talks with attendees.
But he also said Bush hadn’t been in the state for 15 years before that and that other contenders—like Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Chris Christie—have put in significantly more time with voters and party officials.
“Jeb is really starting from scratch,” he said. “He doesn’t have an existing organization that he inherited or built. Even the folks who helped his brother’s campaign—that was 15 years ago, 16 years ago, and that organization doesn’t exist anymore.”
In short, Bush has a lot of skepticism to quell. So he’s being really nice. While other Republican presidential contenders lobbed doom-and-gloom messages on how the globe will be lucky to survive the Obama presidency, Bush geeked out about how science says his grandkids will live to 130. He talked about falling in love with his wife when he was 17. He came off as wonky and avuncular. He was warm, fuzzy, and power-affable. And, naturally, people still hate him.
In Nashua on Sunday—in the same hotel ballroom where Bush told Republican activists that love at first sight is real—a small, dedicated cadre of grassroots conservative activists gathered together in hopes of nipping his White House dreams in the bud.
For Bush, inspiring flamboyant grassroots vitriol is the norm. During his CPAC speech in February, a group of Tea Party activists and Rand Paul fans made national headlines when they marched out under a Gadsden flag.
Sunday morning’s grassroots summit, hosted by a group called the 603 Alliance, brought together activists who shared the CPAC party-crashers’ complaints.
Fran Wendelboe, a former member of the New Hampshire House, said the group hopes to gather conservative voters together at an October caucus and get them to agree to coalesce behind one candidate. She also said Donald Trump filled out their candidate survey and that Governor Rick Perry’s aides promised her that he’ll send in his answers shortly. If the 603 Alliance can consolidate the RINO-hunter vote, winning New Hampshire and snagging the Republican nomination could be much tougher for Jeb. Big if.
The 603 Alliance meeting had upward of 100 attendees by my count, and it kicked off with live music from a rockabilly band. The John Birch Society—long banished from mainstream conservative circles—had a booth there with literature touting Agenda 21 conspiracy theories. State Representative Bill O’Brien, former state speaker of the House, jabbed at Bush with vim.
“The candidates that are looking for New Hampshire to save them are those candidates who support Common Core and think that they can get elected because they have a famous, dynastic name,” he said, drawing laughter and hearty boos from the audience. “Those candidates are the candidates who hug Barack Obama because he showers federal dollars on their state. Those are the candidates who say one thing about illegal immigrants in New Hampshire, and they’ll go back to Florida and give a speech in Spanish on Univision in which they say something else—the opposite.”
That last comment was likely an allusion to a Breitbart News story that inaccurately translated comments Rubio made on Univision. The conservative news outlet initially reported that the senator defended the president’s executive action on immigration on the Spanish-language network. The site later ran an article saying that its initial piece was wrong because it had misunderstood his Spanish.
But that nuance seemed lost on the booing New Hampshire crowd.
Jack Kimball, who formerly chaired the state’s Republican Party, gave a speech that was a little less demure. He said that “Agenda 21, regional planning, NGOs” are “trying to control all of us, rack ’em, pack ’em, stack ’em.”
He also criticized FISA courts, the Patriot Act, police militarization, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which he half-jokingly dubbed “our own terrorist organization.” And he criticized national media coverage of the police shooting and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, this past summer.
Kimball also praised one event attendee for going to Cliven Bundy’s ranch last summer to participate in the standoff against federal agents. The crowd gave that man a standing ovation.
While fighting Bush will never be as exciting for Tea Partiers as fighting Clinton or Obama, it sure gets them out of bed on a Sunday morning.