Jeb Bush’s enduring conflict: family connections vs. 'my own man’ mantra

FILE--Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shakes hands with his brother, President George W. Bush, after short news conference during his visit Oct. 17, 2015, to Pompano Beach, Fla., to survey Hurricane Wilma damage.
FILE--Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shakes hands with his brother, President George W. Bush, after short news conference during his visit Oct. 17, 2015, to Pompano Beach, Fla., to survey Hurricane Wilma damage.

Red and white signs read Jeb!, but the message was unmistakably Bush!, the candidate flanked by his parents, the former president and first lady, in a dash for campaign money and momentum.

“When are you going to stop having Mama and Daddy kind of do all the heavy lifting,” a critic said, “and when are you going to stand on your own?”

It could have been Donald Trump or one of Bush’s rivals on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. But this was Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, when Jeb Bush first ran for office in 1994.

Monday in Houston, Bush is again relying on his family as he finishes a weekend retreat with major donors, rewarding them with appearances by his parents and older brother, former President George W. Bush, in the city of his youth.

It’s the enduring conflict of Jeb Bush’s political life: The privilege of family vs. individual drive and accomplishment.

“I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make,” Bush said in February, confronting the issue months before he became an official candidate. “But I am my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.”

Bush, 62, still wrestles with affording himself the donor network his family spent decades building while trying to sell voters on his tenure as the two-term governor of Florida.

“The reality is you can’t run away from your family, but you don’t want them to be a dominant part of your campaign, especially in an outsider year,” said Matthew Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida who has written a book about Bush.

“No one predicted the rise of Trump, and that has changed the dynamic substantially,” Corrigan added. “Jeb Bush has gotten drawn into a very tough dilemma.”

Like Chiles, Trump has tried to exploit the dynastic cloud over Bush’s campaign.

No one predicted the rise of Trump and that has changed the dynamic substantially. Jeb Bush has gotten drawn into a very tough dilemma.

Matthew Corrigan, political science professor, University of North Florida

During the last debate the two got into it, and Bush punched back that his brother “kept us safe.” The audience cheered, underscoring the warmth many Republicans have for George W. Bush. Trump doubled down in subsequent interviews, blaming the former president for the 9/11 attacks.

As Bush struggles with weak poll numbers and cooler fundraising — his campaign on Friday announced major cutbacks — his family is rallying around him. His brother is getting more active, holding a number of recent fundraisers, including one scheduled this week during a rare visit to Washington.

During a private event in Denver last week, the former president took a shot at Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is gathering momentum among grassroots conservatives, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has overtaken Bush and has drawn a generational contrast.

The 43rd president has said he won’t be on the campaign trail but there is loose talk of the possibility. “I wouldn’t want to be presumptuous to recommend it, but if I was asked, I would certainly be affirmative,” said Barry Wynn, a veteran of the Bush campaigns in South Carolina.

Nationally, 71 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the former president, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll in May.

Still, Wynn said, “you don’t want to blur the message Jeb is trying to build, which is his record and his prescriptions for the nation’s problems. You’ve got to be careful that remains the No. 1 story, and that’s why it’s a delicate balancing act.”

Jeb Bush arrived in Florida in 1980 to get out from the shadow of his father in Texas. Even then he relied on family connections to get started in the real estate business in Miami, then local politics. Tireless and savvy, he saw success in both.

Running for president was going to be a challenge and Barbara Bush in 2013 cut to the heart of it. “There are a lot of great families and it’s not just four families or whatever,” she said. “There are other people out there that are very qualified and we’ve had enough Bushes.”

Her son entered the race anyway and quickly established himself as a fundraising powerhouse. But her sentiment (since reversed) continues to resonate among voters.

Bush’s prickly side emerged when reporters this summer in New Hampshire asked him about how a fundraising letter from his brother squared with the “my own man” mantra.

I know how to do this because, yes, I am a Bush. I happen to have seen two really good presidents develop relationships with other countries.

Jeb Bush

“Is that a contradiction?” Bush said. “I’ve got my own record. I’ve got my own life experience. I’m blessed to have a brother that loves me and wants to help me, over and out.”

In May, Bush offered some of his only criticism of his brother when a voter asked for differences.

“I think that in Washington, during my brother’s time, Republicans spent too much money,” Bush said in New Hampshire. “He could have used the veto power. He didn’t have line-item veto power, but he could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C.,” messaging that fit in with Bush touting his “Veto Corleone” persona while governor.

A massive TV advertising campaign is under way in early nominating states to sell Bush’s record as governor, and his strategists and backers are convinced it will win over voters eventually. “I have a feeling when people get behind the curtain they will tend to vote for someone they can trust can do the job,” Wynn said.

“Look at the Mannings,” said Slater Bayliss, who worked for Bush in Tallahassee and attended the Houston gathering. “Archie Manning was a very good quarterback. Peyton Manning has gone on to be one of the great quarterbacks and has won a Super Bowl. Eli Manning has won two Super Bowls.

“Nobody says Eli has won two Super Bowls because Peyton won one before him. They’ve become their own quarterbacks in their own way. If you grew up in the Bush family, public service is clearly a very important part of life.”

As the campaign progresses, and he struggles, Bush has gotten more comfortable embracing his family. In Michigan recently he spoke of the need for the United States to strengthen ties with Canada and Israel.

“I know how to do this because, yes, I am a Bush,” he said. “I happen to have seen two really good presidents develop relationships with other countries.”

Dubbed the “Jeb Celebration,” the Houston gathering will bring together some of his biggest donors. So-called Commanders, people who have raised especially large sums, get a reception Sunday with George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush while another class of donors gets to meet with Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba. On Monday, the group is to sit for a “conversation” with the candidate and his brother.

“There would be a lot of stories if the family wasn’t doing anything,” said David Bates, a childhood friend of Bush’s in Texas. “It’s a balancing act, and I think he’s doing it right.”

But the campaign is struggling, pulling in less money in the most recent quarter, in part because not all of the donors who supported his brother have come on board. He’s gotten relatively little in small dollar donations, which speak to grassroots support.

Bush has fallen in the polls to political newcomers Trump and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who lives in West Palm Beach. The hunger from voters for new faces makes Bush’s task that much harder. He has taken to portraying himself as an outsider, a “disrupter” who will bring real change to Washington.

So far, though, his exhaustive travel schedule and more than $10 million in advertising has not moved the needle.

Armed with a super PAC that has pulled in more than $100 million, Bush has resources to keep going, and he’s pursuing a strategy to pick up delegates in states that hold contests after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“Jeb is built for the long haul,” Bates said. “I think there are a lot of people who think they know what he is like — 'He’ll be just like 41 and 43’ — and it’s just going to take time to convince people that he had a great record in Florida, a vision for the country and the skills to be a great president.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary ataleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.