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Bush Scrambles to Reassure Donors as Rubio Pounces After Debate

Bush vows to improve as candidates emerge from contentious debate 2:42

A lackluster debate performance Wednesday night has sent Jeb Bush and the broader Bush network scrambling to reassure skittish donors who are beginning to look to other candidates to place their presidential bets.

Bush held a conference call with top donors Thursday afternoon, vowing to improve as a candidate and saying he's looking forward to being back on the campaign trail, where his supporters believe he shines.

On the call, Bush emphasized his commitment to the early primary states, particularly New Hampshire, and in a move aimed at regaining control of the narrative and underscoring that commitment the campaign on Thursday rolled out a high-profile endorsement from former Sen. Judd Gregg.

Bush insisted during a campaign stop in New Hampshire that “the end is not near,” and that his campaign is not on "life support."

Is This the Beginning of the End for Jeb Bush’s Campaign? 2:28

"Look, we're still in October. We have more than 100 days left before we go to the Iowa caucuses," he said. "I knew this was going to be a long journey, but to suggest that the campaign is terminal? Come on. That's pretty funny."

And on Thursday evening, George W. Bush headlined a fundraiser for his brother in Georgetown, where attendees leaving the event said he offered much the same message: "Keep the faith."

One donor said the former president emphasized that “It’s a long game,” and that the campaign is focused on long-term strategy. Bush told the attendees the event raised $350,000 for his brother's campaign, and he took an optimistic and comedic tone — as one donor joked, "He should do stand up!" Bush pointed in particular at the media as creating problems for the candidate.

"He said 'the press might not be too kind to Jeb for a while,'" a donor leaving the Georgetown fundraiser said.

But it was difficult for even hardcore Bush loyalists to ignore the debate, which saw Bush overshadowed by most of the rest of the field and outwitted by one of his main competitors, Sen. Marco Rubio, in one of the key moments of the night. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” admitted that "it was a tough night."

Mel Sembler, a longtime Bush family loyalist and member of the finance committee for the pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise, chalked the poor performance up to the fact that debating is not one of Bush’s strengths.

“He's a policy wonk, he's not a debater. He is a fabulous policy wonk,” Sembler said.

But he acknowledged it raised the pressure on Right to Rise to define the candidate positively in voters’ minds, a task that, despite $25 million in advertising from the group in the early primary states, is far from complete.

"I hope he does better on the debates, but in the meantime it's imperative for Right to Rise to educate the public on his record as governor and who he is as a person,” Sembler said.

Asked late Thursday how he planned to become a "better candidate," Bush told NBC News:

"I'm going to have to do what other candidates do: which is rudely interrupt, not answer the questions that are asked, and hopefully the debate moderators will actually ask more substantive questions as well. It's going fine."

Meanwhile, Rubio’s campaign wasted no time in seeking to capitalize on Bush’s poor performance. His campaign officials were making calls to Bush donors on Thursday, and a Rubio adviser said the incoming calls from interested donors was like "drinking out of a fire hydrant.”

He was already benefiting from a spike in online fundraising that saw the campaign bring in over $750,000 from more than 14,000 unique donations as of 3 p.m. Thursday.

But while Rubio’s team was working to nail down Bush backers behind the scenes, publicly the candidate was seeking to downplay any tension between himself and the man he once considered a mentor.

"I still have tremendous admiration — both as a person and as a governor — for what he did for Florida, and I'm not going to talk bad about Gov. Bush. My campaign is not about him or anybody else," Rubio said on NBC's "Today" show on Thursday morning.

"I'm not going to change how I run my campaign because of what someone else decides to do."

Still, Rubio was not without challenges of his own post-debate. Sen. Ted Cruz also experienced a spike in online fundraising, drawing $1.1 million in the 24 hours following the debate.

And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday added a high-profile voice to the calls for Rubio to resign over his high record of missed votes and hearings, slamming him as the “John Edwards of the Senate” and lamenting that Floridians are “being ripped off by him.”

"It's not a question of missing the votes, that's only part of the deal, but to compare himself to Bob Dole, to John McCain, to John Kerry, to Barack Obama, that takes a lot of gall, a lot of chutzpah," Reid said.

“I think he abandoned the Senate, and the state of Florida deserve two senators, not one senator."

Late Thursday night, it seemed that Rubio had heard the criticism — his staff said the senator was canceling a campaign event in Iowa on Friday to make time to be in Washington for the early Friday vote.