MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – Jeb Bush is trying to pull off a comeback this month, and for about a half hour in a small barn on the New Hampshire coast, you could almost believe it might happen.
“We’re Americans, dammit!” Bush said. “We’re not from another place, we’re Americans. This is always how we’ve propelled ourselves forward.”
Speaking at the event in Rye, Bush seemed like a new man. He was animated, upbeat and nearly shouted his stump speech in which he foresaw a country “on the verge of greatness” if only it could “unite behind a common purpose” under the right leader.
“You guys elect presidents and that’s why I’m here and that’s why I’ll be here and I’ll come back and back and back,” Bush said.
As the saying goes, nothing concentrates the mind like the sight of the gallows, and Bush looked focused as ever as he sought to redeem a campaign on the verge of being swept into irrelevance. It was a stark contrast to his hesitant debate performances and the “low energy” caricature spread by Donald Trump.
“Good energy tonight,” one man told Bush at a town hall in Raymond later that night.
“I actually have pretty good energy every night,” Bush replied.
If a comeback is going to happen, it will be in New Hampshire, where Bush spent three days this week at intimate town halls and house parties and roundtables and schools, trying to convince small crowds – and maybe himself – that his time was at hand.
Bush started his quest in the state pledging to “show my heart” to voters, and what they saw on his latest swing was raw and bloody. Through three days of events and conversations with reporters, he mounted a rousing defense of his record and spoke with bracing candor about his daughter’s past struggle with drug abuse, his fears of disappointing his father, and his own weaknesses as a candidate.
Squint right and you could almost see the contours of a Bush revival. Outside that small barn in Rye, however, grim reality was still waiting.
“He’s probably fifth right now,” Scott Brown, who hosted the Rye event as part of his “No BS BBQ” candidate series, told MSNBC when asked where Bush ranked in the state. Brown, a former Republican senator from Massachusetts, now resides in New Hampshire and mounted a losing campaign for Senate there in 2014.
The good news, according to Brown and every GOP voter who talked to MSNBC this week, is that New Hampshire makes up its mind late. Bush has 12 paid staff in the state and is planning on hiring more, and his campaign claims to have the largest organization of anyone in the state.
“He’s got good people in New Hampshire helping him out who know what to do and he certainly could bounce back,” Dave Carney a veteran GOP strategist told MSNBC.
The bad news is – well, there’s a lot of bad news. A WBUR survey this week pegged him at fifth place with 7% support, behind frontrunner Trump, Ben Carson, John Kasich and Marco Rubio. A separate Monmouth survey put him at 7% support, behind all five names plus Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
With news like that, a major part of Bush’s job right now is to keep his backers from panicking.
“I promise you I’ll do better,” Bush told donors in a call on Wednesday, according to audio obtained by NBC News. “All the nervous nellies on the call, chill out. We’re going to do better, I promise you.”
It’s an enormous weight. And while Bush told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt on Thursday he doesn’t spend time “on the couch meditating my navel,” it was hard not to read something deeper into his comments to a group of Manchester middle school students on Wednesday morning about his relationship with his father.
“My dad was such an inspiration for me that whenever I made a mistake all he would have to say is ‘I’m disappointed in you’ and it would send me into a deep spiraling depression for days,” Bush said.
In New Hampshire this week, Bush’s revamped new message to voters was broadly – almost defiantly – similar to the old one: Elect Bush, because he’s the optimistic conservative with a record of getting things done. The problem, Bush told reporters on his campaign bus, wasn’t his message but that he couldn’t express it properly on the national stage when it came time to debate.
“I think I do pretty good when I’m out with real people interacting with them,” Bush said. “I have fun doing it, but the debate process is different, I just got to translate what I do, last night twice, and what I’m going to do today three or four times, translate that into a debate experience.”
Bush won’t meet his rivals onstage again until Tuesday in Milwaukee, but several were in town the same week to file paperwork to get on the ballot.
While Bush met with law enforcement officials on Wednesday morning, Rubio – Bush’s onetime protege and top rival for establishment support – was at St. Anselm College nearby for a light Q&A hosted by young professionals. The event seemed tailor-made to highlight Rubio’s biggest strengths against Bush – his youth, easygoing charisma and humble background.
“I think our country is in desperate need of leaders that understand not just the new economy, but what life is like in the new economy,” Rubio said in between questions on Star Wars (he said he sympathizes with Darth Vader), which non-political figure he’d watch a Dolphins game with (Malala and Gary Kasparov), and what tunes he’d play at a party (electronic dance music).
Rubio, who hit 13% and third place in the Monmouth poll, is fast becoming a concern for the entire field. Not coincidentally, he’s facing more scrutiny in the press and attention from his rivals to go with his rising status.
After conservatives accused him of planning to maintain President Obama’s protection for young undocumented immigrants, he clarified to reporters at St. Anselm that he would let the program expire. That, in turn, prompted new attacks from Hillary Clinton and Democrats that he had sold out to the far right.
Rubio also faced questions about his use of a state party credit card to pay for personal expenses in Florida, a story that’s resurfaced after popping up in previous campaigns. Rubio said he paid all the individual charges and would release fuller records soon. Rivals like Trump have also gone after Rubio’s handling of his family budget, including an unusual move to liquidate his retirement account.
“Everybody needs to be vetted,” Bush told MSNBC when asked about Rubio’s finances.
Republican strategists who spoke to MSNBC weren’t ready to write off Bush yet. Some expressed skepticism of Rubio and especially Carson, who strategists said has shown less commitment to the state than some rivals in terms of visits.
“The issue for Rubio has been that he just hasn’t been to New Hampshire much,” Mike Dennehy, an unaligned Republican strategist, told MSNBC. “Carson has virtually no organization here.”
But Bush faces additional threats too. Several candidates with overlapping appeal like Carly Fiorina and Kasich have devoted tremendous time to the state and have shown signs of life. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, written off early in the race, has staked his hopes on New Hampshire as well and a video of him discussing drug policy, a huge issue in the state, went viral this week. None are likely to drop out.
Even at Rubio’s event, though, there were glimmers of hope for Bush. Meghan Glynn, a 29-year old attorney and self-described “very moderate Republican” who talked to Rubio after the event, said Bush was still her favorite GOP candidate by a wide margin.
“If this were a job interview, Jeb Bush would be the clear winner,” she said. “You would never give the job to the kid who’s straight out of school. No offense to Sen. Rubio.”
Asked how she felt about Bush’s performance so far, she replied: “I feel very depressed about it.”