From the onset of the Republican presidential race, one assumption has been that his name, his heritage and his money would make Jeb Bush the establishment wing’s top candidate.
But as summer evenings cool and the nominating contest heats up, the former Florida governor is facing a real challenge for that spot from an unexpected rival — Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The reasons vary, from shortcomings Bush has displayed to Kasich’s ability to mix traditionally conservative stances with open-minded attitudes on issues such as immigration and gay marriage.
Until now, the fixation of the media and the political community on billionaire developer Donald Trump’s astounding surge has overshadowed such jockeying. But ultimately, the positions of the party’s more centrist hopefuls might well matter in next February’s New Hampshire primary as will the relative standing of more outspokenly conservative rivals in the prior Iowa caucuses.
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While Trump leads in New Hampshire, as everywhere, Bush has lost one-third of his support since March, dropping into a statistical tie for second in the Real Clear Politics average with Kasich, whose numbers soared after a $1 million advertising campaign and an appealing performance in the first GOP debate.
Doubts about Bush helped Kasich attract some big-name endorsements, including Tom Rath, a key adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2000; and former Sen. John E. Sununu. And in a signal of potential appeal in the South, he was endorsed by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.
Last week, Bush showed he is feeling the pressure, seemingly echoing Trump’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant stance. Bush, who once said “I would support” a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, abruptly expressed concern about “anchor babies,” using a derogatory term and jeopardizing potential Hispanic support. (Later, he said he was referring to “organized efforts” by visiting “Asian people” and denounced Trump’s immigration plan.)
The 62-year-old Bush’s departure from his normally nonconfrontational approach followed months of missteps indicating his long absence from campaigning left him unprepared for the unrelenting pressures of modern presidential politics.
On several occasions, he stumbled over questions whether he agreed with the decision by his brother, President George W. Bush, to attack Iraq. Later, he gave a convoluted history of U.S. withdrawal, incorrectly blaming the Obama administration for rebuffing Iraq’s alleged interest in keeping some American troops.
He stirred an outcry from women’s groups already cool to GOP candidates by questioning the federal government’s spending “half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”
And his low-key performance in the Fox debate drew mediocre reviews. Bush “demonstrated his wonkish qualities, though he certainly didn’t do enough to excite worried supporters,” concluded Princeton History Professor Julian Zelizer, a CNN contributor. Trump, more bluntly, said it showed Bush lacked “the energy for this job.”
Meanwhile, Kasich, the two-term Ohio governor and former congressman, is filling the New Hampshire void created by lack of Bush enthusiasm (and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s inability, so far, to gain traction). Though many conservatives opposed Kasich’s decision to accept expanded federal Medicaid funding and he, like Bush, favors the Common Core education plan and broad immigration reform, he has so far escaped serious conservative criticism.
He stresses his congressional experience helping to balance the federal budget and Ohio’s economic growth while refusing to criticize Trump, explaining his generally positive approach in a CNN interview: “How are you supposed to feel about what you did, when you took time away from your family and your friends and all you did was play politics?”
On immigration, he wants to “finish the wall” against illegal immigrants but “legalize” the 11 million already here. Though he once questioned birthright citizenship, he now supports it, declaring, “Let these people who are born here be citizens.”
So far, Kasich’s reputation for being unfocused and occasionally arrogant has rarely surfaced though he caused one viral outbreak by saying, possibly humorously, that he favored abolishing lounges where teachers complained about their problems.
Bush has one advantage over Kasich: a massive war chest that might help him survive early setbacks. And if Trump converts his polling lead into primary successes, the pecking order of rivals might not matter much.
But if it diminishes or disappears, the New Hampshire primary will likely produce the GOP establishment’s standard bearer for the decisive contests ahead.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
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