Jeb Bush takes a question from a visitor at Hollis Pharmacy in Hollis, N.H., in November. (Reuters/Gretchen Ertl)
There have now been three Republican presidential primary debates, each one worse than the last for Jeb Bush.
After Bush was slapped down in Boulder at the last debate by his former political understudy, Sen. Marco Rubio, one Bush campaign aide said that the former Florida governor was lucky that the next debate, to be held Nov. 10 in Wisconsin, was only two weeks later.
“If he performs like that then it’s over,” the aide said. “[The Milwaukee] debate is the most important in his political life.”
Perhaps that’s overstating the case. But there’s no mistaking that Bush needs a win Tuesday night on the stage in the Fox Business debate at the Milwaukee Theatre. The Republican candidates won’t debate again for five weeks, so any trajectories set Tuesday night will have some staying power.
Bush has fallen far from frontrunner status since August. In fact, he is now on the verge of falling out of the front tier of candidates altogether. Bush sits at just 6 percent in the Real Clear Politics national polling average, in fifth place behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who are tied with 25 percent each, with Rubio at 12 percent and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at 10 percent.
Many political observers don’t see a path back for Bush, despite the cash resources amassed by his campaign and the super-PAC supporting him. He wagered his campaign on the idea that he could overcome his last name’s negative connotations by getting out into the early primary states and showing voters one at a time that he has the skills and experience to lead the nation.
Instead he has been blindsided by the modern political campaign, undermined by a lack of verbal discipline and too slow to realize that the wrong choice of unscripted words can turn a passing remark into a 24-hour story. And family efforts to help him have only served to tie him ever more closely to his brother’s unpopular presidency and undermine his opening campaign argument that he was his “own man.”
Bush is now in tricky territory after his failed attempt to take Rubio down at the last debate. Since that debate he has been increasingly on the attack against Rubio, but with little to no success so far. The risk for Bush is that his candidacy becomes known only for its negativity. And it’s an open question how much of an appetite Bush even has for the kind of attack politics that some on his campaign and in his super-PAC seem to think will be necessary to drag Rubio down and again rise in polls.
But with Bush having failed to claim frontrunner status based on his own merits, his campaign’s energy is now flowing toward the elimination of rivals.
Rubio is seen as Bush’s main competition because he appeals to the same donors and voters in the Republican Party’s establishment, moderate and mainstream wings. Rubio also has appeal to the conservative wing, but for now those voters are concentrated around Trump, Carson and Cruz.
Rubio’s campaign has become increasingly aggressive in its responses to Bush. When the New York Times reported Monday that Mike Murphy, who runs the Right to Rise super-PAC supporting Bush, plans to spend as much as $20 million on TV ads attacking Rubio, the Rubio campaign sprang into action.
“This is a joyful campaign???” wrote campaign manager Terry Sullivan in a fundraising e-mail, referring to Bush’s vow to run for president joyfully.
Sullivan also seized on details in the Times story that said Murphy has tested ads that argue that Rubio — who said earlier this fall that he wants abortion to be outlawed with no exceptions for rape and incest — is too far to the right on that issue.
“It get’s [sic] better. Jeb’s Super PAC has even produced a video claiming that Marco is too Pro-Life!!!” Sullivan wrote.
Rubio’s campaign is also relentlessly pointing out that Bush had nothing but praise for Rubio until they became campaign rivals. “I’m a huge Marco fan,” Bush says in one clip that is included in a 30-second Rubio ad. The Rubio campaign called Bush’s attacks on their candidate “phony.”
And on Tuesday morning, the Rubio campaign continued to telegraph its core message: Rubio is going to stay positive and will refuse to be dragged down into the gutter with Bush.
“Just like the last debate, we expect some of the other candidates, who are not enjoying the same success that our campaign is, to attack Marco with discredited misinformation. And just like last time, Marco will stay positive and not engage in the mudslinging,” Sullivan wrote.
“Marco will do exactly what he did in the first, second, and third debates: he’ll tell you his story, detail his conservative plans for the 21st Century, and invite you to become a part of our positive, conservative campaign.”
Bush world seemed to sense Tuesday that their candidate’s narrative was slipping away from them to a dark place. Murphy’s super-PAC released a mostly positive 30-second ad that focused on Bush’s accomplishments as governor. The PAC said it will run on local TV in Iowa and New Hampshire and on Fox News, as well as on local TV in South Carolina next week.
In addition, the Bush campaign released a YouTube video touting Bush’s record as governor of Florida, using the praise of Fox News’ Sean Hannity as its soundtrack.
Whether Bush can knock Rubio off balance and actually score some points will be the central question of Tuesday night’s debate. Even if he does, it will only be a start for Bush, who has a long, hard road ahead of him to have any hope of winning the nomination.
Another candidate whose back is increasingly against the wall is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He entered the race last spring at 5 percent in the national polling average and has never gone higher. He now sits at 2 percent. He enjoyed some attention over the last week when a video of his compelling stump speech on drug addiction went viral. But online interest has yet to translate into quantifiable support for his candidacy.
Worst of all, Christie has been bumped from the main stage debate to the undercard lineup, which starts at 7 p.m. and will be watched by fewer people. Christie proponents argue that with more time to talk, his charismatic personality will get more attention. But it’s unclear whether that’s true or whether this is, in fact, a step further down the road to being ignored by voters.