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A.B. Stoddard: Jeb no longer in front

Four months into the 2016 presidential campaign, Jeb Bush has all the money and none of the mojo.

Despite the financial juggernaut the former Florida governor has built — Bush said this week he had raised more than anyone else has at this point in a presidential campaign in history — he is failing to excite crowds, dominate polls or scare away competitors.

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Bush comes in second or third in most polls, and when he has ranked first it hasn’t been by much. There is considerable enthusiasm for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as well as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who many had believed would forgo the race if Bush were to make a White House bid. Bush has doubled down on his positions on education and immigration that are unpopular with conservatives, and as each young Republican contender labels Hillary Clinton “old news,” it only makes Bush seem more stale.

With an official announcement expected soon, Bush’s performance thus far is worrying his supporters more than his rivals. He acknowledged this last week when he laughed off a voter’s suggestion that the GOP nomination could be a coronation for him. “We’ve got 95 people running for president. I’m really intimidating a bunch of folks, aren’t I?” he asked.

Bush doesn’t have a long list of prominent establishment endorsements, and supporters like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are intentionally staying quiet so far. Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate whose support every GOP candidate for the presidency seeks, has reportedly dismissed Bush because of remarks former Secretary of State James Baker, a Bush adviser, made about Israel. Bush is so far from formidable he appears to be last on the list of five candidates Charles and David Koch are willing to audition for their billion-dollar support.

The Bush family seems acutely aware of how tired the nation has grown of political families. Not only does former President George W. Bush concede he is a liability for his brother and said he won’t be seen campaigning with him, he has said “the country doesn’t like dynasties.” In short, though it may be Jeb’s turn, his father and brother may have destroyed his chances.

Being the first front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination, saddled with high expectations, is not an enviable position, but perhaps it could become one. Bush has not made any major blunders, and can afford to blend in to the background as each candidate has his or her moment. After all, every single opponent of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney had a lead at one point early on in the campaign. The wide-open GOP primary in 2016 will be far more of a marathon than 2012 was, and Bush’s backers believe only he can build a strong operation that can go the distance in a general election campaign.

Though Rubio’s nomination would make history — he would be the first Hispanic nominee of either party — Bush’s roots in the Hispanic community are long and deep, as his trip to Puerto Rico showed this week. With the Puerto Rican population in Florida growing, he hopes to build a sturdy base of Hispanic support in the Sunshine State. 

While in Puerto Rico, Bush recalled his efforts campaigning there for his father, former President George H.W. Bush, in 1980, and hinted he may be following the playbook of President Obama in hopes he can quietly amass support from unexpected corners of the electorate. “Lesson number one in politics, if you’re interested in it: Out-organize them,” Bush said. He has also promised to “try to seek every vote in every nook and cranny of the country.”

If Bush can attract unconventional support, he could defy the expectations for an establishment front-runner. And though many Republicans are swooning for Rubio, the widespread hesitation over electing another young, handsome, history-making first-term senator who listens to rap music and has a beautiful family still makes Bush the safer bet.

Bush can win the nomination just by surviving. Just ask Romney. 

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.