Relaxed Jeb Bush brings his A game to New Hampshire

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks with area residents at a packed house party Fridayin Dover, N.H. On his opening foray into New Hampshire for his likely campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush challenged voters here to spend time learning about the issues and avoid shrill partisan sniping.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks with area residents at a packed house party Fridayin Dover, N.H. On his opening foray into New Hampshire for his likely campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush challenged voters here to spend time learning about the issues and avoid shrill partisan sniping. AP

Jeb Bush completed two jam-packed days of campaigning across New Hampshire on Saturday, making this abundantly clear: He’s bringing his A game, and he will campaign for president on his own terms.

The 62-year-old son of one president and brother of another has not had to court Republican primary voters in Florida for more than two decades, let alone in the most wide-open presidential primary in modern history. But after recent appearances in Iowa, before a conference of conservative activists in Washington and this weekend in the Granite State, it’s clear plausible predictions that Bush might prove to be another Fred Thompson, lethargic and half-hearted, are unfounded.

Amid melting snowbanks and wall-to-wall throngs of reporters at stops in New Hampshire, Bush — looking at least 30 pounds trimmer than when he was governor — took pointed questions about his views on immigration and the Common Core education standards without a hint of defensive.

Like an anti-Mitt Romney, he firmly stood behind positions that are toxic to many likely Republican primary voters.

“You don’t abandon your core beliefs. You go persuade people, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now, about why I’m for higher standards,” he told a woman who asked him about his support of the Common Core standards adopted by Florida and more than 40 other states. “I think you need to be genuine. I think you need to have a backbone.”

Like an anti-Hillary Clinton, he cheerfully bantered with reporters and took time to answer question after question on hot-button issues. National reporters saw the Jeb Bush that Florida reporters knew in the 1990s — a top-tier politician who engages, is unscripted and often unpredictable, and can get excited about the most arcane topics.

“Governor, on second-generation biofuels —” one reporter started to ask him in the moonlight Friday night.

“Like what? Which ones?” Bush cut in.

“Well, their interest group said the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) is actually not working for them. Would that cause you to take a second look at the RFS?”

“Yeah. The whole point of this was that the big increases were supposed to be in cellulosic ethanol ...”

Bush looked like he was having fun, bemused by the dozens of journalists crowded around him and eager to substantively discuss issues with individual voters, as New Hampshire has come to expect.

“Just kinda wandering around, learning a lot and having fun doing it,” Bush said later, insisting for the umpteenth time that he was not yet committed to running in 2016 but only exploring the possibility.

Even skeptics came away impressed.

“What I appreciated the most is he answered the questions. He didn’t just beat around the Bush — no pun intended,” Beth Monelle, a community college teacher said after Bush spent 90 minutes talking and taking questions at a house party in Dover where 100 voters and 75 reporters had RSVP’d.

Bush had not appeared in New Hampshire since a couple of weeks before his brother lost the 2000 primary, and by most accounts the all-important first in the nation primary is a must-win for him. The state holds an open primary allowing voters to cast ballots in whichever party contest they want, which should make it more fertile ground for Bush, generally viewed as more moderate than other likely contenders.

The hurdles before him were widely evident this weekend.

“We don’t need another Bush. His policies are just too liberal for me,” electrical engineer Uli Cheney said at the Dover house party, citing Common Core and immigration as top concerns.

“I’m fine with legal immigrants, but the ones he wants to bring in all respond to Santa Claus — gimme, gimme,” agreed retiree David Scott.

Bush declared in December that Republicans need a nominee prepared to “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles,” meaning they need a nominee who won’t veer so far to the right to win over conservative primary voters that many moderate voters are turned off in the general election. He is living up to that.

When asked about seemingly becoming more hard line on immigration reform — supporting undocumented immigrants’ “legal status” to stay in the country, rather than full-fledged citizenship — Bush clarified that he would be fine with full citizenship if it was politically feasible.

“If you could get a consensus done where you could have a bill done, and it was 15 years as the Senate Gang of Eight did, I would be supportive of that,” Bush said, referring to a 2013 plan in the Senate that would have allowed citizenship after 15 years. (A plan Sen. Marco Rubio helped write.)

That kind of straight talk may win respect among campaign reporters and pragmatic party establishment leaders, but the former Florida governor is the first Bush to run for president in an era where it’s not at all clear the party establishment calls the shots as it once did.

Nominating Jeb Bush “will kill the party,” said state Rep. Jim McConnell, who views George W. as a disaster, and argues the GOP needs to change. “If we come up with more of the same, and nothing says more of the same than another Bush, we will lose many people.”

“I heard people say today, 'It doesn’t matter if it’s Hillary Clinton or the Devil himself. I’m not voting for another Bush,’ ” McConnell said after a party meeting in Concord Saturday attended by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Bush spent much of Friday and Saturday in private meetings with activists and dignitaries across the state, and his two-day stint offered another contrast to his brother. President Bush held few one-on-one events, instead focusing on large auditoriums. For his New Hampshire debut, Jeb Bush opted for intimate settings with a roundtable discussion in Hudson and a house party in Dover.

“Anyone who has been on a first date knows how important it is to try and make a good first impression,” said Fergus Cullen, the former state party chairman who hosted Bush in his home but has not endorsed anyone yet.

No one doubted Bush’s ability to raise money, given his family’s political network. His campaign is tamping down expectations that his Right to Rise political committee could raise more than $100 million by July, and downplaying reports that he has asked donors to hold off on writing checks for more than $1 million apiece because it could look unseemly.

His campaign’s organizational skill was on display late last month when Bush addressed CPAC, where even mentions of his name drew boos. To counterbalance the activists who walked out on Bush’s speech, his campaign ensured a much larger cheering section showed up.

Bush has never been a particularly strong speech-giver, though, and considering he hasn’t run for office in 13 years, his nimbleness on the campaign trail remained an uncertainty. His debut this month should put those doubts to rest.

“He’s very down to earth, and so genuine,” said Carrie Kennedy, a social studies teacher in Dover.

Contact Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.