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Bush supporters pick up the pieces after disappointing debate

Bush supporters pick up the pieces after disappointing debate
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Jeb Bush’s supporters are struggling to explain the candidate’s listless debate performance as baffled investors ponder the way forward.

Top fundraisers and donors aren’t setting their hair on fire just yet, but in interviews on Thursday, they said they were frustrated and puzzled by Bush’s wilting act under the bright lights at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate.

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“It's frustrating for those of us who are supporters of his, those of us who know him,” said one of Bush’s largest donors. “I mean, I've seen in these meetings with the smaller groups — he's unbelievable. It's just sort of weird."

Bush was outmaneuvered by his former protégé and whiffed on softballs that his rivals clobbered at the bout in Boulder, Colo., broadcast by CNBC.

The former Florida governor tepidly followed a debate moderator’s lead in attacking Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump must send Russia powerful message through tougher actions McCain, Coons immigration bill sparks Trump backlash Taking a strong stance to protect election integrity MORE (R-Fla.) for missing votes in the Senate. The moment was a long time in the making and could have marked Bush’s reemergence as an authoritative voice in the race while diminishing his chief rival for the establishment mantle.

Instead, Rubio won the encounter.

“The only reason you’re saying this is because we're running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said, earning big applause from the crowd. 

Bush didn’t have a comeback, and he never really recovered. 

Supporters were left scratching their heads as to why Bush, a policy wonk, would pick that issue and that setting to take on Rubio, a fast-talking, slick debater.

“Rubio's comeback was spirited, and the media has played it as if Rubio got the better of the exchange,” said Fred Malek, who has raised money for Bush’s super-PAC. “So all things considered [Bush] would have been better off not piling on the moderator's comment."

Later, in answer to a moderator’s question, Bush wondered aloud whether the federal government should regulate fantasy football betting websites, setting the table for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to eat his lunch.

“Are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football?” Christie thundered. “We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football? Enough on fantasy football. Let people play. Who cares?” 

On Thursday, Rubio’s campaign was busy fundraising off suggestions in the debate that he should wait his turn to run for president and sending self-congratulatory emails to supporters about his debate performance.

Bush’s campaign, meanwhile, was seeking to move on, sending out press releases about upcoming appearances and picking up an endorsement. 

Not even Bush’s most enthusiastic surrogates were up to the task of defending his effort in the debate.

“The debate performances are having a huge influence this time around because they’re being viewed by so many people, and it’s probably the one component where he’s not doing as well,” Republican strategist Ana Navarro, a Bush loyalist, said on CNN. “It’s frustrating to me because I still think he’s most qualified to be president.”

Meanwhile, former House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan Cantor'Release the memo' — let's stop pretending that Democrats are the defenders of the FBI Raúl Labrador, a model for Hispanic politicians reaching higher Eric Cantor: Moore ‘deserves to lose’ MORE, Bush’s Virginia co-chair, admitted on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" that Bush “had a tough night,” while former George W. Bush aide Nicole Wallace told the "Today" show that Bush “didn’t have the kind of night that even his campaign acknowledged he needed to have.”

It all leaves Bush in a bad spot.

He was already dealing with negative news over his low polling numbers and campaign spending cuts. Now, the media narrative surrounding Bush’s campaign has put it on death watch.

And in private conversations with fundraisers, some cracks are beginning to appear.

Bush’s supporters are disappointed that he didn’t display the fire they expected from a candidate who badly needed to quash the notion that he’s losing his grip on the race and dispirited by the process.

“I don’t want to hear about this ‘joyful tortoise’ anymore, I want to see a wounded lion,” said one Washington bundler.

Some fundraisers worry that the big-dollar donors Bush is reliant on will back off or hedge their bets across the spectrum of establishment candidates such as Rubio and Christie. 

The Bush campaign will find out where it stands on the money front later Thursday, when Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, is scheduled to host a $2,700 a ticket fundraiser at the Washington home of financier Paul Horvath. Jeb Bush is holding a town hall in New Hampshire and won’t be on hand.

Some supporters and fundraisers remained optimistic. They’re still buzzing from last weekend's confab in Houston, where the campaign made the case that it’s built for the long haul.

“One thing that makes us campaign insiders feel confident is that we know we have the resources and the game plan in the early voting states to go the distance,” said Bush confidant Al Cardenas. “It’d be nice to change the narrative, but the debates are more important for the candidates who don’t have the resources we have.” 

Supporters say they’re content to let the media buzz over momentum, debate zingers and other indicators they insist are irrelevant to winning the presidential nomination.

“Relax. We're going to be OK,” Bush Bundler Slater Bayliss said in an email on Thursday. “It is absurd to suggest that a poorly run debate, on a second tier cable network, held concurrently with the World Series would lead to an obituary for a man who is sitting on a pile of endorsements and money and who has a legitimate record of success as a reform-oriented businessman and governor.”

Furthermore, they believe the campaign sees a way forward that’s more suited to Bush’s strengths.

Campaign manager Danny Diaz likes to boast that he has the hardest-working candidate running for president, and Bush has likened his own efforts to those of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Meghan McCain: Melania is 'my favorite Trump, by far' Kelly says Trump not likely to extend DACA deadline MORE in 2008. The Arizona senator, once left for dead, rose from the ashes with a hit-the-pavement and carry-your-own-suitcase style of campaigning that ultimately won him the Republican nomination.

Bush is hoping the same formula works for him.

He fled Colorado on Wednesday night to pick up an endorsement from former Sen. Judd Gregg in New Hampshire, where he’s redoubling his efforts. Gregg is a columnist for The Hill.

Bush will host a town hall in the state on Thursday night and will preside over the coin toss at high school football game in Florida on Friday. He will cross paths with Rubio again at an event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday.

As the debates have failed to provide the spark he needs, onetime front-runner will have to grind it out as he seeks to regain the confidence of supporters.

“There’s no magic bullet. He’s going to have to work his way out of this one,” said one bundler. “Go to event after event, make appearance after appearance, and sit through the interviews where he’ll have to listen to how badly he did. It’s going to be unpleasant, but he’s just got to get through this.”