Jeb Bush knew the high political stakes he faced in the first two Republican presidential debates: Prove he could be the establishment favorite. Fend off Donald Trump. Survive both without making a serious mistake.
Not good enough.
Bush enters the third debate, which will be held Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado, with more pressure on him than ever. He shook up his campaign operation last week, cutting salaries and budgets, to try to survive the tempestuous GOP primary. He spent two days in Houston this week, accompanied by his father and brother, reassuring shaky financial donors that his campaign is built for the long run.
He was even asked on Fox News last week what it would take for him to drop out.
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Now Bush, an unremarkable debater, needs a standout showing — not to shoot to the top of the polls, but merely to regain his footing after losing his status as the candidate to beat.
“He needs to blow Trump out of the water,” said Nelson Diaz, the Miami-Dade Republican Party chairman who’s neutral in the race but personally close to Bush rival Marco Rubio.
“If he doesn’t come out strong in the debate, he is going to have a much more difficult time,” said Stanley Tate of Bal Harbour, a national GOP adviser who is also staying out of the primary.
“He’s got to show people why he is a qualified candidate — and of all the candidates, from a qualification standpoint, I don’t think there is a single candidate that can match him,” Tate added. “Jeb’s got to sell Jeb Bush as a person.”
Bush’s nine debate opponents, smelling blood in the water, won’t make it easy for him.
For the first time, Bush won’t stand center stage along with Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Rubio, who’s now higher than his one-time political mentor in early polls, will take Bush’s former spot next to Trump. The other contenders are former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Don’t get me wrong: You can’t get up there and wet your pants. But I’m not sure you can get the fundamentals in any lasting way in any of these debates.
J.M. ‘Mac’ Stipanovich, former Jeb Bush adviser
The two-hour debate, with a focus on the economy, will air live at 8 p.m. on CNBC, competing for viewers with Game Two of the World Series and the new pro basketball season. Four less-popular candidates — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — will debate separately at 6 p.m.
Will Trump target Carson, who’s leading in three Iowa polls and one nationally? Will Carson fight back? Will Fiorina keep showing debate sparks? Will Rubio get more attention?
Bush showed a feistier side over the weekend in South Carolina, telling voters, “If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then...I don’t want any part of it.”
“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,” Bush said, according to CNN. “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 is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
The economic focus should help Bush, who likes wonky details. But voters frustrated with the GOP establishment have shown little interest so far in fine policy details.
“The electorate is much more focused on its mood than on electing the next leader of the free world,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who hasn’t backed a candidate.
But, he added: “At a certain point, I think you need to start meeting and beating expectations. The voters sitting at home, they judge these debates on moments of strength or moments of weakness. A lot of other candidates moments of weakness — and they’re not on stage anymore.” (Two Republicans, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, have bowed out.)
Bush’s loyal backers acknowledge the recent campaign reality check but praise the candidate for making changes now, while there’s still time to adjust before the first ballots are cast in February.
“The perception now is he is not the favorite, and he is the underdog,” said Ed Easton, a Bush fundraiser from Miami who attended the candidate’s Houston retreat (which Trump derided as Bush’s meeting “with Mommy and Daddy”). “I think that’s a benefit to Jeb. Other people at the top will start to get the scrutiny Jeb has been getting, and we’ll see how they hold up.”
Perhaps because Bush is more comfortable in one-on-one settings than on TV, his friends aren’t giving the debate too much weight.
“I am not one who is a great believer in ‘The Moment,’” declared J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a former Bush political strategist in Tallahassee. “Carly Fiorina had a ‘moment’ — lowercase — and has fallen back. I don’t recall Ben Carson, who is surging now, having a ‘Moment’ — uppercase.
“Don’t get me wrong: You can’t get up there and wet your pants. But I’m not sure you can get the fundamentals in any lasting way in any of these debates.”
Doug Corn, a Cincinnati financial adviser and past fundraiser for former President George W. Bush, said donors like himself who are still on the fence for 2016 are looking for reasons to make up their mind.
“It is a big night for him,” Corn said of Bush. “A lot of his potential backers and supporters who have been staying on the sidelines thus far really would like to see him have kind of a breakout performance. I think if he does, the tide can shift a little bit for him.”
“At the very beginning, it was going to be ‘Jeb Bush, Jeb Bush, Jeb Bush,’ and he is in that second tier and has kind of remained there,” added Corn, who is also looking at Rubio and Carson. “But has got to break out of that mode and show people that he can stand the heat. He’s got a lot of substance, a lot of things to add. He has not done that yet.”
Stipanovich countered that wealthy donors ultimately decide which candidate to back based on polls, cash in the bank and early-state staff and advisers — not debates.
“My guess,” Stipanovich said, “is that a billionaire is not likely to jump out of a chair while watching the debate on TV and say, ‘Ma, get me my checkbook!’”