Bush gambles on Trump attacks to restore his lead

Bush gambles on Trump attacks to restore his lead
© Getty Images

Jeb Bush is trying to get off the mat and prove his mettle to the Republican Party after a tough summer. 

No longer the front-runner, Bush has reset his campaign strategy and is now directly engaging Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE, in part to show that he’s capable of the political knife-fight it takes to win.

ADVERTISEMENT

It's a risky plan and a complete departure from his previous strategy. But in the end, donors and strategists say, Bush had no choice but to attack. 

Bush's biggest donors are cheering this new strategy, though some more nervously than others. 

One of the more bullish donors is California investor William Oberndorf, who says there is “no time like the present” to start fighting back against Trump. Oberndorf has already sent a $1 million check to Bush’s super-PAC, Right to Rise. 

Although Bush has fallen from presumptive nominee to third place in national polls, Oberndorf urges his fellow heavyweight donors to hold their nerve.

“We must remember, and as recent experience informs us with President Obama, those who are good at running for office are not necessarily good at serving in those positions,” Oberndorf said via email. 

“While the polls look lousy at the moment, it is [a] good time for Jeb’s donors to take a deep breath and double down because the stakes are high and there is plenty of time for him to rebound.” 

Bush has sputtered at the polls of late, placing sixth in Iowa polls and third in New Hampshire, according to a RealClearPolitics recent average. And while an Iowa poll released on Tuesday had him in third place, he was nearly eight percentage points behind second-place Ben Carson and 14 points behind Trump. 

The former Florida governor spent almost two months avoiding a head-on collision with Trump, ignoring Trump and saying he wouldn’t jump into a “food fight.” 

That changed in late August, when the campaign switched directions and began attacking Trump’s lack of conservative bonafides

“Jeb has no choice but to look like he’s ready to mix it up because his numbers are too anemic, and he runs the risk of not being the moderate, right of center alternative to Trump,” said Lee Miringoff, the polling director at Marist College. 

Allie Brandenburger, a Bush spokeswoman, told The Hill that "Trump is trying to run a legitimate campaign and he needs to be treated as any other candidate would."

She said "this is a fight that is required for our party and Jeb is willing to take it on if nobody else will."

She added that Bush will continue to hammer home the contrast on the stump this week in New Hampshire.

Bush and his allies have attacked Trump both on the stump and with ads on his immigration platform, as well as his past support for abortion, tax hikes and single-payer health care. 

Charles Schneider, an Iowa state senator and member of Bush’s Iowa steering team, believes that voters will embrace the candidate’s willingness to fight. 

“He’s going to be ready to take on Hillary, or Biden or whoever the Democratic nominee [is],” he said. 

“The fact that Jeb is willing to take the fight to Trump right now helps show voters he’s going to be willing to take the gloves off and take the fight to the Democrats as well.” 

While that may be, interviews with some of Bush’s biggest donors reveal that while most Bush supporters are relieved that his campaign and super-PAC are finally blasting Trump, they are cautious about the risks involved in confronting a man who pays no heed to civility or the normal rules of politics. 

"Do I think they're afraid [of counter-attacks from Trump]? Of course," said a major donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the Bush family. 

California investor Marc Stern, who sent a $500,000 check to Right to Rise, said he is “thrilled that Jeb is highlighting the contrast between him and Donald Trump.” 

“The difference between Jeb’s record as a proven conservative who cut taxes and spending and Donald Trump’s positions couldn’t be more stark,” Stern said. 

Other Bush donors admit to being frustrated that the former Florida governor did not attack Trump sooner. A Bush donor who served in the George W. Bush administration says he is “happy” the super-PAC is finally hammering Trump but believes Bush may fall victim to his impeccable manners. 

“One of the challenges of being a supporter of a guy who’s so thoughtful and analytical is that those of us who are a little more rash and impetuous wish he would’ve acted faster,” he said. 

The donor, who spoke anonymously to avoid offending the Bush family, said this was a common view among the Bush supporters he speaks to. 

One of Bush’s most generous supporters summed up the general confusion about how to deal with Trump, saying he's worried Bush’s campaign and super-PAC would, in effect, be giving a charitable donation to other establishment candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker if Right to Rise wasted a ton of money attacking Trump. 

“Why should they spend their own money to benefit the whole group?” said the major donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the Bushes. 

“On the other hand,” the donor said, “I don’t want to let [the Trump attacks] run their course." 

It’s unlikely that disaffected Trump voters will flock to Bush’s camp — the two hardly share a core constituency. But Republican strategists think the move is more about creating the perception of a narrowing field by setting up Bush as Trump’s diametric opposite and rallying those repelled by Trump around the Bush banner. 

“The Bush team feels very good about a two-way race with Trump, that conservatives that don’t like Trump and the mainstream of the party will unite,” Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist, said. 

“They feel like if they can speed up the process of getting to the head to head matchup, it prevents the rise of someone else and it is ultimately a fight they will win.” 

Those optics would be a huge victory for Bush. 

While the Trump rise has knocked everyone down a few pegs, Bush is facing challenges from all sides. The anti-establishment wave has pushed Ben Carson into second place ahead of Bush in RealClearPolitics’s average of recent national polls, with Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) nipping at his heels. 

And he’s still feeling pressure from those who’ve long been seen as his major rivals — Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Govs. Scott Walker (Wis.) and John Kasich (Ohio), particularly Kasich, who is in second place in New Hampshire, nearly 4 percentage points above Bush in the RealClearPolitics average. 

“He’s got to be looking at a Kasich and wonder how long he can be the alternative without mixing it up," said Miringoff. 

But there’s inherent risk in taking on the big dog. Trump lives for the scrap, and his path to the top is littered with the bodies of candidates who have pushed back hardest, most notably Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and former Gov. Rick Perry (Texas). 

Bush, on the other hand, has called himself the “joyful” candidate and has seemingly spent the past few months trying to avoid a head-to-head battle. 

“He didn’t want to come out throwing anything more than a few jabs, [but] now he’s trying to throw some direct punches,” pollster Miringoff said. 

“He had not done that, so he’s clearly doing an about-face right now in the face of Trump’s surge.” 

Some of Bush’s other main rivals have offered muted criticisms of Trump, but the former Florida governor is the only top-tier candidate to throw down with the party front-runner. 

But Trump hasn’t been shy about criticizing Bush right back both on social media and stump speeches. For every jab Bush throws, Trump punches back. 

And with the next GOP debate two weeks away, it will likely set up a pivotal showdown between the two on the debate stage that could put Bush outside of his comfort zone. 

“It’s one thing to have your videos do that — it’s a whole other thing to be standing next to the guy on the stage,” Miringoff added.