Mark Doss wants to ask Jeb Bush a question. “Why do you say you’re willing to lose the primary to win the general election?”
Bush said those words two months ago in Washington, a place that seems a million miles from this country town about an hour northwest of Des Moines. But to Doss, an Evangelical church administrator, it was personal, almost “vindictive.”
“It felt like he’s saying, 'I don’t care about you.’ I was a bit turned off.”
As Bush prepares to formally enter the race for president, there is a glaring disconnect between his ravenous fundraising and support among the Republican elite, and the reception from everyday voters like Doss, 57.
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“A lot of people don’t like him or have reservations,” said Doss, who joined his wife on a 14-degree afternoon at Dutch Oven Bakery, a cozy spot filled with the smells of coffee and fresh doughnuts. “He has embraced Common Core, immigration and represents the establishment. It’s a serious problem.”
“But it can be overcome,” Doss added. “He needs to make his case clearly and reaffirm all the other things conservatives are looking for — a balanced budget, strong military.”
In less than a year Iowa will hold the nation’s first nominating contest, a key marker in what is becoming one of the most wide-open races for the White House in decades.
A growing slate of hopefuls, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, have been flocking to the state for months — years in some cases — ingratiating themselves to activists, elected officials and lining up potential staff.
But Bush has kept his distance, and the landscape early on looks hostile.
A recent Iowa poll showed 43 percent of Republicans view the former Florida governor unfavorably — the mere mention of his name brought boos from a crowd at a recent conservative gathering — and he has been eclipsed by fresher faces such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
As much as Iowa may not fit the kind of national campaign Bush is trying to run, he needs to show Republicans what he stands for and that he can endure the rigors of battle.
He may want to avoid a brutal contest to prove who is the most conservative, but it’s critical for Bush to begin to make the introduction, and the argument. Voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina will be watching.
So Bush, 62, will compete in Iowa, but with carefully managed expectations, according to people familiar with his plans.
On March 7 he will make his first visit for an agricultural summit in Des Moines along with other likely candidates. Bush has hired David Kochel, a top Iowa operative who ran Mitt Romney’s campaign here and who would oversee Bush’s national campaign. And his team is in talks with people on the ground in the state.
“I don’t know anything for certain, but what I do know about the Bush family is that when they’re in, they’re in,” said Becky Beach, a longtime Iowa operative who has been a Bush confidant since George H.W. Bush upset Ronald Reagan in the 1980 caucus. “He’ll do what it takes to compete. He doesn’t need to go to every Panera and pizza spot, like some of the others need to.”
A third Bush?
Iowa serves as an ideal reading of Bush’s overall challenges in winning over the conservative base. Conversations with Republicans over several days revealed how keenly aware people are of his support for the Common Core education standards and an overhaul of the immigration system.
They frequently described him as “moderate.”
A Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll released in late January found that only 40 percent of likely caucusgoers said Bush is “about right” ideologically, lower than almost all other top-name hypothetical candidates, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who got that stamp from 53 percent of voters, and Walker, who came in with 56 percent.
“A lot of Republicans, at least in my circles, are looking for someone who is going to stand up and take some serious leadership,” said Carter Holman, 64, a high school teacher in Des Moines.
“I get the impression Jeb Bush is just sitting back like he has it in the bag,” he added as a friend nodded in agreement. “If he really wants to win people over he needs get out there and start stating his positions. If he is for Common Core, tell us why.”
Time and again voters brought up the Bush name, mostly in a negative way.
Deb Carnine, 58, of Ames is a Democrat but is moving toward supporting a Republican for president and she likes Bush’s position on immigration. “The less extreme positions appeal to me,” she said, waiting for take-out lunch at Cafe Diem in Ames. “The Bush name does not.”
Others cited significant growth in federal spending under President George W. Bush, growth that help lead to the tea party and pushed the GOP to the right on an array of issues, from immigration to education.
“I don’t know if our country is ready for a third Bush,” said Andrea Smith of Ogden. “So much anger was exhibited toward George W. because of the war.”
Appearing at a celebration of reading event in Florida on Friday with his mother — who said she changed her mind about “enough Bushes” in the White House — Bush told reporters that he would not be addressing the unpopular war in Iraq, “re-litigating anything in the past,” a position that will be hard to sustain over a campaign.
Smith, a charming 78-year-old Fox News junkie with a bonnet of white hair, said Bush “has got some things to clear up for some of us” and cited Common Core. “I don’t know where they grabbed all this stuff,” she said. “Nobody knows how to add 2 and 2 anymore.”
Nonetheless she sees value in Bush’s executive experience as Florida governor and found his bearing appealing. “He seems worthy of the office, maybe more so than W.,” Smith said. “He was a little wrangly.”
Bush doesn’t have to win Iowa and not even his allies think he will at this stage. The caucuses — which three years ago drew just over 122,000 Republicans, about 19 percent of the state’s total — are dominated by Evangelicals, who have a slate of probable social conservatives to choose from, including 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee and new firebrands such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Those who get animated by an issue like Common Core probably weren’t going to be Bush supporters in the first place,” said Chuck Laudner, an activist who helped Rick Santorum in the state in 2012 but is currently uncommitted.
Huckabee’s surprise win two cycles ago was a devastating blow to Romney, who invested heavily in Iowa. Four years later Romney lowered expectations, visiting less frequently and focusing more on New Hampshire. He took off in Iowa in the final stretch and came in second, barreling to a win in New Hampshire, which put him on track to the nomination in Tampa.
For Bush to finish in the top four would probably be seen as a success. He’s expected to do better in New Hampshire, where Republicans trend more to the center.
A Republican consultant who could advise a Bush campaign suggested Bush might visit once every six weeks or so and do several stops, rather than the more frequent visits of candidates who would need to catch fire to grab the attention of the donors flocking to Bush. The Bush “shock and awe” finance operation is designed to allow him to campaign nationally and scare off challengers.
But Bush still has to allay concerns of the base. He’s hoping to do that by highlighting his conservative bona fides as governor. He cut the budget, fought the teachers’ union and was an ally of the National Rifle Association.
“I’m not as well known for my record,” Bush said in an interview last week with the Tampa Bay Times.
Asked why he thinks some people don’t see him as conservative he responded, “I don’t know. I’m a common-sense, practical conservative. I got to do things, and I’ll get to share that if I go beyond the consideration of running.”
Absent that, he’ll have trouble getting to voters like Julia Carlson, who owns a Christian supply shop in Ames, Iowa. When a reporter asked about her impressions she said she had few except that Bush supports Common Core and shares a family name that to her means he’s “middle of the road and probably not conservative enough.”
Told of Bush’s fight to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a St. Petersburg woman whose husband wanted to remove her from life support, Carlson perked up.
“So he has some fight in him,” she said. “I like that.”
Contact Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.
Bellwether state or outlier?
Since 1980, the Iowa Republican caucuses have been a contested process six times. Only three times did Iowa voters pick the eventual nominee.
George W. Bush*
George W. Bush
George W. Bush
George W. Bush
George H.W. Bush*
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
* Ran unopposed