By Alexander Bolton - 07/12/15 02:30 PM EDT
Jeb Bush needs to walk a fine line in responding to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWATCH LIVE: Trump speaks to supporters in Ohio Adult film star latest to accuse Trump Clinton running mate vows to 'bring folks back together' after election MORE’s attacks, Republican strategists say, and avoid going toe-to-toe with the brash New Yorker.
They say getting into a “food fight” with Trump would diminish Bush, the two-time Florida governor who is a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
So far, Bush has jabbed at Trump occasionally without being dragged into a full-fledged feud.
The even-handed approach seems to be paying off, as Bush’s poll numbers have surged in the past few weeks.
Bush was lumped in the polls with a pack of frontrunners on June 15, when he formally announced his presidential campaign.
By July 5, he pulled into the clear lead, six points ahead of his second-place rival, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, according to an average of national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
Having established a foothold at the head of the field, Trump’s presence in the race — and his ability to dominate media coverage — could prove beneficial to Bush.
“It’s taking the oxygen out of the field from the other 15 [candidates], because the only two with name ID are Bush and Trump,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on John McCainJohn McCainIs Georgia turning blue? High anxiety for GOP Trump: 'Very disappointed' GOP senator dropped support MORE’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric has made Bush look more presidential by comparison, strategists say, even as it has prevented lesser-known candidates from grabbing a share of the spotlight.
Pundits and guests on CNN mentioned Trump’s name 239 times over a 24-hour span from July 8 to July 9, according to The Washington Free Beacon.
Stories about Trump are also dominating news coverage online, with sites featuring several stories about him on a daily basis.
“His 24-7 media click bait is basically making it so the only other name being mentioned is Bush, which is actually helping Bush. Turn on the TV, turn on the radio, there is not another name being mentioned other than Scott Walker’s in Iowa,” O’Connell added.
“The advantage that Bush gains from Trump is it makes clear that Bush ain’t Trump,” said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist. “I think Trump’s helping Bush because he’s establishing him as a legitimate contender.”
Trump has stirred controversy by declaring that illegal immigrants from Mexico have brought a surge of crime, drugs and infectious diseases across the border. He has also pulled Bush into the media spotlight by regularly lobbing grenades at him.
Bush has pushed back, but not aggressively, disappointing pundits who want to see him have a “Sister Soulja” moment. The phrase has become shorthand for how Bill ClintonBill ClintonBill Clinton: We're entering era that will 'make the 90s look like small potatoes' Trump son: Talk like father's leaked 2005 tapes 'a fact of life' Is Georgia turning blue? MORE earned plaudits in 1992 for standing up to the left by rebuking the rapper who called for violence against whites.
Radio host Michael Smerconish has called on Bush to condemn Trump’s remarks, arguing on Twitter “there are not enough white voters left to solve @GOP math problem created by alienating non-whites."
Instead, Bush has taken a milder approach.
“I don’t think he represents the Republican Party, and his views are way out of the mainstream of what Republicans think,” he told reporters in New Hampshire.
A post on Trump’s Twitter account — which was promptly deleted — said Bush “has to like Mexican illegals because of his wife,” Columba, who was born in Mexico. Trump later denied he had anything to do with the message.
Bush responded to Trump, but it wasn’t much of a slapdown.
“You can love the Mexican culture, you can love your Mexican-American wife, and also believe that we need to control the border. This is a bizarre kind of idea that somehow you can have an affection for people in a different country and not think that the rule of law should apply. This is ludicrous,” Bush said.
Strategists say Bush is smart not to exchange haymakers with Trump, who has a reputation for escalating fights and not backing down.
“The best way is for Bush to continue to put Trump in his place by saying his comments are only intended to generate headlines, they’re not based in real facts,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former congressional GOP leadership aide.
“What Bush is obviously trying to do is not get into a food fight with Donald Trump but at the same time push back. It’s a careful line to tread. You don’t want to create a sideshow spectacle by taking Trump’s bait,” he added.
While Bush has appeared presidential by responding calmly to Trump’s barbs, he has expressed some irritation at the media whirlwind they generate.
Bush said in a Fox News interview Wednesday he was not interested in getting into a rhetorical battle with the billionaire candidate.
"I'm done. I'm through. I gave my views. I just think that we need to be much more hopeful and optimistic about our ideology," he said.
"We should focus on that and not get into a food fight that only brings energy to someone who I doubt will be president and is not a constructive force for our party," he added.
GOP strategists say Bush will continue to benefit from Trump as long as he doesn’t get dragged too far off message in responding to his digs.
Trump isn’t letting up, having panned Bush’s support for Common Core education standards as “pathetic” and his approach to immigration reform “baby stuff” during a recent Fox News interview.
“The question is whether Bush can keep the car between the two white lines, because chances are Trump’s comments are going to get more incendiary,” O’Connell said.
—An earlier version of this article referred to Smerconish as a conservative.