BOULDER, Colo. — Jeb Bush faces high stakes at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate on the heels of a wholesale restructuring of his campaign, which is slashing payroll and refocusing the former front-runner’s efforts on the New Hampshire primary.
Bush desperately needs a strong debate performance to install confidence in his campaign and to change its narrative.
“Jeb’s in a little bit of a vicious cycle,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “The media are writing about how bad things are, which impacts donors, which impacts media. He’s got to find a way to break that cycle.”
Bush has sought to allay concerns by meeting with top donors in Houston over the weekend. The campaign highlighted its deep establishment support and financial strength as evidence that Bush can still emerge victorious.
The campaign also pointed to history, arguing that insurgent candidates such as Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE and Ben Carson may still fall by the wayside as primary voters zero in on the contest.
Yet it is also clear that Bush’s campaign is in danger, and Trump, his main adversary this summer and fall, has been circling him like a shark.
On Wednesday night, Bush will no longer be at center stage, which will instead be occupied by Trump and Carson. Those two insurgent candidates are leading polls nationally as well as in Iowa and New Hampshire.
This year’s Republican primary has differed from all those before it, leading many to wonder whether Bush’s establishment credentials are more of a burden than a boon.
“The contours of the Republican primary are significantly different than anyone could have predicted,” said Slater Bayliss, a Bush bundler who attended last weekend’s event in Houston.
“In a way, time’s running out for him to change the narrative that he’s underperforming,” said Mackowiak.
Bush’s supporters publicly remain confident that he can turn things around.
“When we gathered in June in Miami, the playbook was to build for a different-looking primary,” continued Bayliss. “But every donor I’ve talked to here feels confident that the governor and his leadership team have adapted to fit the contours of this race.”
They also believe Wednesday’s debate could suit his strengths. It could be a wonkier affair, with a focus on the economy, given host network CNBC.
Bush has made economic opportunity the centerpiece of his campaign, and his allies believe the policy focus will provide Bush the opportunity to positively contrast himself with Trump and Carson.
“This debate won’t focus so much on process and gotcha moments and will be more about substance, which plays to Jeb’s strengths,” said Al Cardenas, a close Bush confidant. “We’ll see how the other candidates stand up to questions that require more depth.”
Bush could have a chance to talk about his plans to lead the nation to 4 percent economic growth and to tout his economic record in Florida.
Still, Bush’s ability to speak fluently on policy matters hasn’t resonated so far with voters, and the first two debates appeared to hurt him.
In the first contest, Trump was the clear star. The business mogul dominated a debate in which he was the center of attention.
Bush’s advisers believe their candidate fared better in the second battle, but his poll numbers haven’t received a boost.
There is evidence that Bush is preparing to go for a more emotional appeal from voters in the third debate.
Bush and his campaign have struck sharp and unapologetic tones in recent weeks, laying bare their feelings on a race that has been dominated so far by Trump.
At a forum hosted by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) on Saturday, Bush’s frustration with the state of the race boiled over.
“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then I don’t want anything, I don’t want any part of it,” Bush declared. “I don’t want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock just become so dominant that people literally are in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation. I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them.”
That’s the kind of rare outburst of honesty that can win or lose the debate for a candidate if it flares up on stage.
But Bush’s supporters aren’t expecting a change in style from Bush on Wednesday in Boulder, believing that his strengths still lie in his steadiness and experience.
“He answers every question thoughtfully, more than most politicians,” said Bayliss. “It’s favorable contrast. Most voters see Trump with this bombastic, incendiary style, while Bush displays great humility. I wouldn’t expect the volume of the governor’s remarks to be amplified, that’s not who he is. But he’s getting better at every debate and people will turn to him because he’s serious about the issues, and they’ll realize you can’t rely on someone who trades in sound bites and gets their foreign policy from the Sunday shows to lead the country.”
The latest CBS News/New York Times national poll released Tuesday found Carson and Trump with huge leads over the field and Bush far back in a pack of contenders that includes Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Even Bush’s supporters realize that Bush needs to begin building momentum soon if the ship is to be righted.
“I don’t think this debate is life-or-death critical, but it’s important that we start building momentum heading into November and the debates are the place to do that,” said Cardenas.