Jeb struggles to recreate 'inevitability' of Romney run
© Greg Nash

Jeb Bush is still the GOP establishment favorite, with loads of campaign cash and a top-notch political organization.

But he certainly doesn’t have the same air of inevitability that Mitt Romney had in 2012.

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Even some of Bush’s biggest fans in the Beltway are privately wondering whether the former Florida governor has what it takes to out-muscle current frontrunner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE and emerge next summer with the GOP presidential nomination in hand.

Bush is still grappling with the legacies of his brother and father, two former presidents, in a year where voters are rallying behind outsiders. The 17-candidate GOP field is much larger and stronger than what Romney faced in 2012, with popular sitting governors and senators challenging Bush in the polls.

And instead of directing all his fire at Democratic frontrunner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats target federal ban on abortion funding Hillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign MORE, Bush has had to go mano a mano with Trump, the hotel mogul who's attacked the Spanish-speaking Bush as soft on immigration.

“I do think he has a shot at pulling off the nomination, and I think he is probably one of the [top] candidates best equipped to actually govern if he is elected,” said a top GOP lobbyist in Washington of Bush. “But due to factors such as these, I’m not sure you can view his nomination as an inevitability — at least not in the same way many viewed Romney as inevitable four years ago.”

One longtime Bush family friend was even more blunt when asked to compare Jeb and Mitt.

“Jeb is not Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney used his inevitability as a tactical weapon. He was very effective at conveying inevitability without seeming arrogant,” said the family friend. “It is very clear that Jeb, so far, has not created any sense of inevitability.

“Jeb’s campaign is run by very smart, capable people,” the source continued. “So far they haven’t found a formula that has enabled them to counter the impression Trump has created that he is a lackluster, lackadaisical, lack-of-energy candidate.”

Some of Bush’s staunchest defenders acknowledge Trump’s ascent has made it difficult to predict the outcome of the primary race.

But they say the former Florida governor is well positioned for a long, drawn-out primary battle. They just want him to be more aggressive with Trump, who one Bush backer dismissed as a “flamboyant demagogue appealing to people’s fears and raw emotions with the complicity of the of media.”

“The fact remains that Gov. Bush is the most qualified person to lead this country of all the candidates running for president on both sides,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), one of three Cuban-American House members from electoral-rich Florida who have endorsed Bush.

“He is also the best prepared for a long, difficult campaign,” the Miami-area lawmaker said.

The Republican Party has a long history of nominating establishment favorites — Romney, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainClimate change is a GOP issue, too It's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Meghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' MORE, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush. In June, when Jeb Bush jumped into the 2016 contest, he was seen as the candidate who would carry the establishment mantle.

But the opening months of the “Jeb!” campaign have been anything but smooth sailing. This summer, Jeb, heir to the Bush political dynasty, fumbled questions about whether the unpopular and costly Iraq war — launched by his older brother, George W. Bush — had been a smart decision.

And in nearly every stump speech, the bombastic, loud-mouthed Trump has dissed Bush as “low energy,” evoking memories of the famous Newsweek cover story about his father, George H.W. Bush: “Fighting the ‘Wimp’ Factor.”

It’s not just Trump who’s been giving him fits. A new national Monmouth University poll out Thursday showed Bush slipping four points to 8 percent, tied for third place with Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan MORE (R-Texas), a Tea-Party favorite who's caused countless headaches for GOP leaders in Washington. Trump was far ahead with 30 percent, trailed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, another GOP outsider, with 18 percent.

Other serious, policy-minded candidates who are earning praise from the GOP establishment include Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package MORE (R-Fla.), Bush’s protégé who was elected Speaker of the Florida House when Bush was governor; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former House Budget Committee chairman on Capitol Hill.

“Kasich, Rubio, Carly Fiorina, they all have potential to appeal to Americans outside the GOP base,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the Tuesday Group, a coalition of centrist House Republicans. He has not endorsed in the race. “There are others who can compete with Jeb Bush legitimately on their policy chops, their resumes and their experience.”

During the 2012 cycle, Romney struggled to quickly put away the nomination as voters auditioned former Speaker Newt Gingrich, then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, then-Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannKlobuchar urges CNN town hall audience: 'That's when you guys are supposed to cheer, OK?' Michele Bachmann praises Trump: Americans will 'never see a more godly, biblical president' Will Biden lead a 'return to normalcy' in 2020? MORE (Minn.), businessman Herman Cain, and former Sen. Rick Santorum for the leading role.

However, many establishment Republicans at the time were confident the party faithful would eventually rally around Romney. In much of August and September of 2011, polls showed Perry in first place with Romney always hanging tough in second.

Now, Bush is tied for third, and a Fox News poll last month put him in fourth place.

Of course, it’d be foolish to write Bush’s obituary at this early stage in the game. With the barrage of attacks raining down from Trump — his latest insult was telling Bush not to speak Spanish in America — the governor has stiffened his spine and begun to engage.

And Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, is expected this month to spend some of its massive $100 million war chest on pro-Bush TV ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in a bid to tout the governor’s conservative record and win back his narrative.

Those ad buys should give Bush a slight bounce in the polls this fall. Establishment allies aren’t bullish on his chances, but they’re not writing him off, either.

Bush “will be in the discussion when the race starts to narrow,” said a former House GOP leadership aide. “He’s been spending his time getting organized on the ground in states that matter. That is the smart thing to do when voters and the polls are fickle.

“There is a little bit of concern” about Bush, the source said, “but he needs to change a few things. It’s not like he can’t win this thing at the end of the day — he just needs to do better.”