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Jeb Bush puts Donald Trump on defense, then lets him off easy

·Chief National Correspondent
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Tune in to watch Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric host a postdebate panel discussion featuring GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez, Washington Post assistant editor David Swerdlick and Yahoo News’ Matt Bai and Jon Ward. They will break down how the candidates performed during the second GOP debate, which was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Jeb Bush still doesn’t know how to go for the jugular.

The former Florida governor came to the second Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library here Wednesday evening ready to put Donald Trump on defense, and he did so. But once he maneuvered Trump into an uncomfortable position, Bush let the current frontrunner off the mat.

Early in the CNN-hosted debate, moderator Jake Tapper asked Bush if he was a “puppet” for donors. It’s a charge that Trump, a wealthy businessman, has repeatedly lobbed at his rivals. It’s a big reason why many Trump supporters say they like him. Trump can’t be bought, his supporters say.

Bush quickly pivoted to a real-life example of a rich donor who had tried to influence his decisions when he was governor of Florida, from 1999 to 2007.

“The one guy that had some special interests that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something, that was generous and gave me money, was Donald Trump. He wanted casino gambling in Florida,” Bush said.

This is a true story. It was reported by CNN two weeks ago, with extensive documentation, no doubt with the full cooperation of the Bush campaign. Trump hosted a fundraiser for Bush, gave money to the Florida GOP, and had hired a lobbyist to push for an expansion of gambling in the state with hopes of building a casino. Bush killed the idea.

But when Bush started in on this topic, Trump denied it. “I didn’t,” he said.

“Yes you did,” Bush said.

“Totally false,” Trump maintained.

“You wanted it and you didn’t get it because I was opposed,” Bush said. “I’m not going to be bought by anybody.”

Having flatly denied a story that is demonstrably true, Trump switched tactics, employing sarcasm.

“I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it,” Trump said to some laughter.

After a few more moments of back and forth, Bush stopped talking. Rather than pressing in with more details, he let the issue drop. He could have mentioned the fundraiser Trump held for him or the $50,000 Trump gave to the Florida GOP, or named the lobbyist that Trump hired to press for an expansion of gambling in Florida. But he eased up.

But multiple Bush advisers after the debate cast the exchange in a bigger context, saying that Trump had been exposed and that the result would echo around the Internet and into one-on-one conversations between friends, neighbors and family members. “It’s not always what happens on the stage,” said Bush adviser Trent Wisecup.

They also felt that Bush had several other moments of strength, particularly his defense of his older brother, former President George W. Bush, over his record of protecting the country from terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.

A few moments later, Bush even switched attacks, talking about Hillary Clinton’s attendance at Trump’s wedding in 2005. That was a distraction from the gambling debate, which actually is an issue that goes to the core of a key critique that Trump has made of Bush and others. It is a way for Bush to bolster his credentials and lower Trump’s. And moments later, Bush did return to the attack on that point.

But Bush did not offer more details, and Trump continued to deny it. In fact, he accused Bush of making up the story. Bush let that stand, rather than pressing his advantage.

It was a similar dynamic later in the debate when Trump criticized Bush for saying last month that he didn’t think $500 million should be spent on women’s health. Bush’s comment was clearly a reference to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and Bush later clarified as much after he said it.

But when Trump went after him, Bush did not explain himself.

“I think it will haunt him. I think it’s terrible,” Trump said.

Bush talked about his record as governor and his pro-life credentials. But Trump pressed him.

“Why did you say it? I heard it myself. Why did you say it?” Trump said.

“We increased child support with a broken system by 90 percent,” Bush said.

“You said you’re going to cut funding for women’s health. You said it,” Trump said.

Rather than correcting Trump, Bush let the accusation that he wants to cut all funding for women’s health stand.

“I have a proven record. I have a proven record,” is all he said.

Near the halfway point, in a third showdown between Bush and Trump, Bush did show more forcefulness, telling Trump he should apologize for suggesting that Bush’s views on immigration are not conservative enough because his wife Columba is a Mexican-born immigrant to the United States.

Interactive: Where the candidates stand on the issues >>>

“To subject my wife into the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that, Donald,” Bush said. “She is absolutely the love of my life, and she’s right here. And why don’t you apologize to her right now.”

Trump refused. “No, I won’t do that, because I’ve said nothing wrong,” he said.

Bush then used the moment to contrast what he called “the Reagan approach, the hopeful optimistic approach, the approach that says that, you come to our country legally, you pursue your dreams with a vengeance, you create opportunities for all of us” with “the Donald Trump approach … that says that everything is bad, that everything is coming to an end.”

But Bush’s lack of ability to pin Trump to the wall on issues that are clear winners for him remains a troubling weak spot for the man who was the frontrunner over the first half of the year but who now finds himself trailing Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the national polling and in the early primary states.

Debates at this early stage are largely about contrast. The primary is a culling process. And so the ways in which candidates collide and disagree and respond to one another is the clearest way in which voters can see the differences between them.

It may be that Wednesday night’s debate began the process of shrinking Trump down to size regardless of how Bush did in his confrontations with the celebrity TV star. The nearly three-hour session was dominated by detailed discussion of policy, which is not Trump’s strength. He was larger than life in the first debate in Cleveland, which had more of a feeling of a three-ring circus than the showdown in Simi Valley. And as this primary goes on, it might be that the steady, slow process of debating issues is what erodes Trump’s support, rather than any one moment.

But Bush’s interactions with Trump are a test of his mettle as a leader. And while he showed some verve, he didn’t come across as forcefully as he will need to.

Bush campaign staffers created a video clip where they pasted Bush’s head on the body of a WWE wrestler body slamming Trump to the mat. They wanted to promote the idea that he had scored a knockout. But that wasn’t quite the case. 

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