Bush calms donors over Texas barbecue
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Jeb Bush did his best to reassure his wealthiest donors over a Texas barbecue on Sunday, telling them that his Republican presidential campaign is trimming its costs and correcting itself like any business.


The former Florida governor served up barbecue beef, smoked turkey, salad and mashed potatoes to his most generous donors on the first night of a two-day donor retreat at a Houston hotel.

Unlike Bush's first donor gathering in July at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me. — when Bush was still seen as the Republican front-runner with the establishment lane almost entirely to himself — Sunday's event followed weeks of sagging polls and a recognition that his campaign would have to dramatically downsize to meet financial realities.

The tone of the Houston retreat was upbeat, and Bush insisted his positive messages would eventually win out in what he sees as an increasingly divisive and demonizing campaign.

"The crowd in Houston was big, energetic and clearly ready to go the distance for Gov. Bush," said Ray Sullivan, who was recruited by the Bush campaign after leading the super-PAC network supporting the former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who suspended his campaign for the Republican nomination in September.

Addressing his campaign's budget cuts, Bush told his donors that "like a business ... when the landscape changes, budgets and plans must change as well," Sullivan said.

"The donors and supporters there welcomed his candor and responded enthusiastically."

Sullivan said Bush had "sharp words for President Obama's misguided and divisive politics," adding that the former Florida governor had "confidence that the GOP can't and won't be dragged down the Obama-esque path of political division, victimhood and demagoguery."

Bush's brother and father, former Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, are attending the donor retreat, said campaign spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger.

On Monday, there will be presentations from senior campaign staff and a "discussion between Jeb and President George W. Bush," she added. George H.W. Bush is expected to attend both days of the retreat.

Jeb Bush is currently lagging in the polls behind billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and has even slipped behind his former protege, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

And while some pundits are already writing off Jeb Bush's chances of winning the Republican nomination, a number of major donors and Bush operatives interviewed by The Hill said they were confident he could turn the polls around by the time votes are cast in primaries next February and March.

A number of these donors and operatives say they have faith that the pro-Bush super-PAC Right to Rise will — with a $100 million-plus bank account that dwarfs the super-PACs of all other candidates — be able to lift the candidate's fortunes by dominating the airwaves with advertising.

California investor William Oberndorf has already sent a $1 million check to Right to Rise, making him one of Bush's most generous donors. He wrote via email that "while campaign fundraising has perhaps been somewhat impacted by current polls, Jeb is in excellent shape."

"[Bush] certainly has enough campaign funds to continue to operate a very solid campaign effort," Oberndorf added.

"Moreover, he can now begin to pivot to a very robust media campaign using his Right to Rise funds where he has absolute dominance."

A Bush operative agreed with that sentiment but said in a phone interview that fundraising was becoming tough, given that many of Bush's early donors had "maxed out" (reached their maximum allowed campaign contribution of $2,700) and that the campaign did not have the seemingly endless supply of small dollar donors that outsider rivals Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Carson seemed to have.

Regarding the struggle with small donors, the Bush operative said: "That was the same way with Romney. You tend to have these more traditional guys, these guys who do better with the business community types, they always struggle with the small dollar donors.

"You have to tip your hat to Ted Cruz," he added. "[Cruz is] doing fantastically well with small dollar donors, but what you have to do is find more $500,000 check-writers to supplement the guys who maxed out.

"I wish there were more $50, $75 check writers out there [who would support Bush]."

The hope that seems to unite Bush donors is that voters will come to see the qualities they love in Jeb Bush and that voters will also eventually lose interest in Trump.

One of Bush's most generous super-PAC donors, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the Bush family, said he wished the American public could see "the Jeb I see."

"I mean, it’s very frustrating for those of us who know [Bush] so well and know how capable he is to see he's not doing well in the polls currently," the donor said.

"[But] I continue to be very enthusiastic," he added, "that this Trump phenomenon will flame out."

Oberndorf agrees, saying he believes that "with Trump's star fading and other candidates likely to drop out due to lack of funding, Jeb is extremely well positioned."

"I am hopeful the American people will come to appreciate Jeb's many accomplishments and the decency of the man," Oberndorf added.

"He is simply one of the most principled people I have ever known and could ever hope to know."