Jeb Bush is trying to reboot his faltering presidential campaign, using a speech in Florida to push back against critics who have already written his political obituary.
Speaking from a podium bearing his new tagline – “Jeb Can Fix It” – the former Florida governor addressed his poor performance at last Wednesday’s CNBC debate, which has many questioning his future in the race.
“As you may have heard, last week I was in Colorado for the third Republican debate,” Bush told supporters at the Tampa Garden Club on Monday.
“If you watched the debate, you probably came away thinking that the election is about sound bites, or fantasy football or which candidate can interrupt the loudest.”
“I’m here to tell you it is not,” Bush said. “This election is not about a set of personalities. It’s about a set of principles.”
While the “Jeb Can Fix It” tagline is supposed to be about setting loose a gridlocked Washington, D.C., it could just as easily be interpreted as a message about Bush’s campaign.
“Bush can conceivably recover and [the] "Jeb Can Fix It" tag line is not an accident,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who was an adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008.
“Jeb is trying to play to his strengths - policy, substance, record,” O’Connell added.
“Just not sure he can break through given the 2016 environment where voters want to ‘fall in love’ and are drawn to those candidates with strong personality traits who can harness the anger they feel.”
Another prominent Republican strategist – who spoke anonymously to be candid – said he was skeptical about the Bush reboot and the new tagline.
“You can have all the press conferences you want but until you actually perform above expectations it’s just a lot of hype,” he said.
The next GOP debate, held in Milwaukee on Nov. 10 by Fox Business, “will probably be a make or break situation” for Bush, the strategist said.
Following Bush’s third consecutive disappointing debate performance last week, during which his Florida rival Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Democrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE (R-Fla.) skillfully deflected Bush's attack, major GOP establishment figures and an influential billionaire donor have begun to swing behind the junior senator at his former mentor's expense.
Bush allies are finding Rubio’s surge especially hard to take, given Bush used his political network to help Rubio rise through the Florida Statehouse.
Bush has admitted both publicly and privately that he needs to do better in debates and that his campaign is going through a “bumpy” patch. His Tampa speech signals a determination to revive his campaign before it enters — as one anonymous fundraiser reportedly put it — a “death spiral.”
By addressing the personality issue and presenting himself as the serious, seasoned leader in the GOP field, Bush is conceding that he has been outshined in debates and on the campaign trail by more telegenic and eloquent rivals, such as Rubio and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Matthew McConaughey on potential political run: 'I'm measuring it' MORE (R-Tex.), who were both unanimously well-reviewed for their debate performances.
As part of the reboot, Bush is also releasing an e-book, “Reply All,” detailing the emails he exchanged with constituents during his eight years as governor of Florida.
Bush is now trying to reframe the campaign around his own terms.
“Our story is about action,” Bush told the Tampa audience, many of whom were positioned behind him within camera-shot, waving red signs saying “Jeb Can Fix It.”
“Doing, not just talking. Listening, not just lecturing,” Bush added, saying he is beginning a four-day trip across Florida, South Carolina and New Hampshire “to tell the Florida story.”
But Bush has been telling “the Florida story” for months, and so far his record as governor a decade ago has not resonated with Republican primary voters.
The two candidates leading the GOP polls — celebrity businessman Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — are being rewarded by voters for offering precisely the opposite of what Bush is promising: zero political experience.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean says it makes sense for Bush to tout his “strong record as a governor” but in doing so he must emphasize that he is “running against Washington” given the electorate’s anti-establishment mood.
But Bush has bigger problems than simply the far right of his party. Just a few months ago, Bush was seen as the favorite of establishment Republicans.
He raised more than $100 million for his super-PAC, Right to Rise, an enormous financial advantage over his nearest rival. And at least one person within the Bush network said the former governor was embarking on a campaign of “shock and awe.”
Since then, Bush has dropped in national polls and fallen behind establishment rivals Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in his favored early state of New Hampshire.
Bush has also had to cut campaign costs, laying off staff and asking others to take pay-cuts as expenses mounted and fundraising slowed.
Recently some commentators, including the influential conservative Peggy Noonan, have taken to referring to Bush's candidacy in the past tense.
During his Tampa speech on Monday, Bush insisted both his and America's best days lie ahead.
In a manner similar to then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA simple fix can bring revolutionary change to health spending US and UK see eye to eye on ending illegal wildlife trade Top nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report MORE's "Yes We Can" chant — repeated as a chorus throughout his speeches in the 2008 campaign — Bush tried out his own line: "I can fix it."
Bush repeated the line over and again.
By “it” Bush means Washington; but his donors and supporters are hoping he can first fix his badly damaged campaign.