Jeb Bush just might be winning them over in Iowa

I knew that I'd have to share my booth sooner or later, but didn't quite know how to go about it. Smokey Row Coffee shop in Oskaloosa, Iowa was starting to get crowded as we waited for Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush to arrive. All the seats at the booths and tables around me were filled, but I suspected there might be some open in the back. I was between that proverbial rock and a hard place; not wanting to invite a stranger to join me when there were open seats, but not wanting to appear to be a "booth hog," should seating be needed. This is rural Iowa, remember, not a more crowded city where restaurant patrons are accustomed to sharing seating. Here, we're used to a little "elbow room."


I relaxed when I saw a friend walking toward me through the crowd. He waved and made the universal "Is that seat taken?" motion, and I shook my head "no." I'll call him "Sam." He's a farmer and an Iowa state legislator, and he did a little politicking on his way to join me. Sam has broad shoulders and a square jaw, and looks like he could still toss hay bales around like nickels despite the fact that he's nearing retirement age. He spotted a man he knew seated at a table right next to where Bush was going to be speaking, and shook the man's hand.

“You got the front table there," Sam said.

"You write a big enough check, that's what you get," the man replied.

Sam laughed, slapped him on the back, walked over and sat down across from me.

"Am I the only one who'll sit with you?" Sam joked.

"Guess so," I said, moving my laptop and coffee cup out of his way.

"Looks like you'll be facing the wrong direction," I said, not being quite courteous enough to offer him my seat with a view.

"That's OK, with my back I'll take anything I can get. All I need to do is hear anyway. Got here too late. No seats."

"You a Bush fan?"

Sam nodded. "I'm a Jeb Bush fan. I told him last time he was here that he had my vote before his brother did; his brother just ran first. I'm a fan of the family. Particularly dad. There's a family of character there. He taught his family to be leaders, and their mom taught them to be nice and respectful. There's a family of character there, for sure. Good people."

Sam's an old-fashioned Republican. Fiscally conservative, and he doesn't shove his religion or patriotism down your throat. Ask him, though, and he'll share.

Sam asked me about the other candidates I've seen or interviewed as part of my job for a local radio station, and it came to me that I had seen or interviewed all of the candidates, most of them two or more times. Except for Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio). I haven't had the opportunity.

I started to reply, but Sam pointed over my shoulder.

"Here he comes," he said.

Bush entered from the backdoor entrance to loud applause, waited for his introduction, then jogged to the front of the room like a boxer coming down the aisle toward the ring. I watched for a few air punches, but they didn't happen. Bush has lost weight — he's even lighter than he was last winter, when the media first began to notice his weight loss.

Often portrayed as lacking energy, he had more than enough for the standing-room-only crowd.

Bush stressed his successes in the purple state of Florida, his efforts to set up an economic stage where everyone could rise regardless of their background, and his record in education, tax reduction efforts and job creation. He touched on international affairs, carbon emissions, states' rights, problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs — you name it.

He smacked President Obama around a little bit, took a jab at senators who don't show up to vote, and in a significant move for Iowa, established his empathy for Christians in the Middle East and those who were victims in the Oregon mass school shooting, a point not lost on this conservative Iowa crowd.

But his main message during his three day tour of Iowa was that he was a proven "disrupter," and that he would "disrupt" Washington if elected. The audience, by and large, loved it. The message is an old one, used by every candidate: Washington is broken, and he or she is the candidate to fix it. While the message is old, the superhero who will fight it is new: The Disrupter.

Many others in the media covering this Iowa trip have made much of this disrupter position, seeing it as Bush, trailing three outsider candidates in the polls, wanting to position himself as an outsider, too, despite much evidence to the contrary. Eli Sokols in Politico called this Bush's identity crisis. So did Josh Voorhees in Slate. Sean Sullivan in The Washington Post had similar thoughts.

These fine journalists and many more who agree with them may well be right, and they certainly have more experience covering the campaign than I do, but the crowd in Oskaloosa didn't seem to see it that way, and ultimately it's their thoughts that matter. To me, Bush actually approached the concept well. Tactically, first laying out the many ways he was a disrupter in Florida, followed by the proposition that he could do the same thing in Washington. To me, it wasn't Bush having an identity crisis as to whether he was a Washington insider or not; I saw it as Bush simply tacking back and forth from a family history that offers him extensive and unique knowledge of how Washington works, to his actual actions as governor of Florida. Back and forth. It actually seems like a viable tactic to me.

While listening to Bush speak, I wondered if I would catch one of the gaffes he occasionally seems to make, those that the media make a big deal about, like his statements about "anchor babies," multiculturalism, guns, "free stuff" and more. Listening to him, I realized that a gaffe to the media is really just street cred in Republican circles. Most of the crowd in Oskaloosa loves that stuff.

I wasn't able to get to the other Iowa events. Reports are that the crowds were large, some others also standing room only, apparently. Of course, on one day during Bush's visit, rival Donald Trump drew a crowd in a larger town of over 1,000. While I know that those in the audience for Bush were there to learn more about Bush, I suspect many in the crowd for Trump were there for the spectacle as much as anything else. When the circus is in small-town Iowa, you go.

I looked around the room, and as I listened I thought about the important work those sitting in the booths and tables were doing. Right now, the citizens in Iowa and other early primary states are doing the jobs America wants them to. Kicking the tires of the candidates, putting them through their paces, and seeing what they're made of. And this time around it has been different than ever before, since three engaging candidates with no governing experience lead the polls.

It's October, and Iowa Republicans are going to start winnowing the candidate list, and they are going to do so by asking themselves some serious questions, and their answers will lead them to reject most of the slate of candidates. It's fairly simple, and it could happen quickly.

Among these questions are: Which candidate shares my values, will keep America safe and help our economy prosper? Who has the experience and clear list of accomplishments that show that he or she is ready to be president? Who has the knowledge of domestic and world affairs such that he or she can pry deeply into the issues and help come up with solutions to complex problems? What candidate is ready to go to work day one? And importantly, who has the temperament to be president?

I suspect that when Iowans compile their list of candidates after asking these or similar questions, and they get it down to two or three names, Bush is going to be on that list. I also suspect that if a thoughtful caucus-goer considers who on that list could go toe to toe with Democratic contenders like Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or whomever on the national debate stage, Bush not only remains on that list, but he probably moves up it.

Sure, I've often heard some variation on "we don't need another dynasty," or "the last thing we need is another Bush." Maybe so, but if he is on the list because of his qualifications, should his last name take him off it? I suspect most Iowa Republicans would think not.

Besides, maybe Iowans are over the last name already. Maybe the rest of the nation is, too. Republicans, that is. When Bush took questions in Oskaloosa, one person in the audience told Bush how much he admired the Bush family. He drew applause. In Politico, Eli Sokols reports that at a different stop in Iowa, Bush took one last question from a woman in the crowd. To Sokols, the question was "a softball that laid bare his biggest unremitting challenge, the skin he will never be able to shed." The question was: "How are your parents?"

While Sokols sees this as a problem, maybe — just maybe — Republicans are getting over the Bush name, in part because President George W. Bush's errors have faded from memory, and because dad and mom were, and still are, admired by many in the party who remember them. The woman asked about his parents because she cares. If she does, so do many others. To them, the Bush name is an asset, not a liability.

And we can't forget the caucus process. Bush has the money and the ground game in Iowa to get people to the caucuses on a freezing cold Iowa winter night. Not all of the candidates do. When you get them to the caucuses, voters also have to have useful information to share as they discuss the relative merits of the candidates with their friends and neighbors. They need to know the candidate, and to be able to offer clear and concise statements of why their candidate should be caucused for. Caucus-goers lobbying for Bush will have a record to argue from, unlike those at the top of the polls now.

Besides, many supporting the top polling candidates are simply protesting the Republican establishment. I know them — these are the guys who sit in the barbershop Saturday mornings and complain about what's happening in town, yet never lend a hand to help make things better. They'll whine and complain until it's time to caucus. Real candidates shouldn't worry: These guys couldn't find their caucuses with both hands.

Sam and I sat quietly for awhile after Bush finished speaking, and I looked down at my cold coffee, wanting a refill, but the line at the counter was long. Bush had concluded his speech with a comment on ObamaCare, and after he waved to the crowd as they applauded, many rushed forward to speak with him, or get photos and selfies. A smiling young mother handed her lovely curly-haired little girl to Bush to pose for a photo, and he held her on his hip, her red curls draped over his shoulder. She leaned into him like he was a comfortable uncle. Bush continued to hold her and answer questions until his staff told him it was time to go. Bush walked out, shaking hands and waving. Some people followed Bush out the door — back to work, the fields, home or elsewhere, while others sat back down to discuss their thoughts about him.

"Ready for more coffee?""asked Sam, standing up, reaching for my cup like he already knew the answer.

"Sure," I said. "Thanks."

I looked toward the door Bush had just passed through, and then back at Sam. "What did you think?"

Sam looked me in the eye and smiled. "Already told ya," he said. "I'm a Bush man."

Leonard has covered the caucuses for KNIA/KRLS radio in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa since 2007. He's an anthropologist and author of Yellow Cab. He can be reached on Twitter @robertleonard.