CHARLESTON, S.C. —Jeb Bush is framing himself as the champion of the conservative cause heading into the Thursday's Republican primary debate in South Carolina, the state where the former governor has focused more of his campaign’s energy in recent weeks.
“I'm proud of being a conservative,” he said this week. “I want to evangelize about the conservative message.”
Bush returns to the state just days after attracting one of his largest crowds of the campaign during a town hall in Hilton Head that brought out more than 500 people last Saturday night.
The focus on South Carolina includes attracting support from former backers of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who suspended his bid for president last month. Bush now touts the backing of 25 former Graham supporters – including two additions just this week – with former state representative Skipper Perry and former president of the Citadel Lt. Gen. Claudius Watts, throwing their support behind the governor.
“Our team is growing every day and there is enthusiasm on the ground, particularly among South Carolina veterans,” Bush’s South Carolina State Director Brett Doster said.
The governor, who has struggled in past debates, has said in recent days that he’s not looking at Thursday as a debate and told that he won’t be lectured to about issues like education by the “pipsqueaks” on the stage.
“I think it’s still to show strength, to show conviction, to talk about issues, be the serious candidate with serious plans to deal with the serious challenges we face,” he said of his strategy.
The crowds Bush attracts in South Carolina are not just larger than he sees in other states, but have generally been more enthusiastic despite his campaign’s more intense focus on New Hampshire where the former governor spends more of his time and employs more campaign resources.
For his part, the former governor has shown praise for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley who generated buzz this week as a potential vice president contender in 2016.
Thursday’s debate comes as Bush ends a two-day swing through Iowa where he spent time crystalizing his message of conservatism in the face of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
“Everybody else is in the witness protection program,” he said of his fellow candidates. “I'm the only guy that wants to defend the conservative cause against a guy who’s not a conservative.”
Bush’s refrain about Trump’s lack of conservative credentials expanded during the Iowa swing to include detailed critiques of the front runner’s tariff proposals and past comments about a disabled journalist.
“He disparages people with disabilities. Really? Really? I don’t know about you but that bothers me deeply,” Bush said.
That rhetoric however has thus far failed to help Bush in the polls.
“Obviously everybody else has made some political assessment that it’s inappropriate to go after the front running candidate because he’ll attack you” he said. “My goodness -- these causes that we have believed in for a long, long time, are worth fighting for and I intend to fight for them.”
Whether that argument proves persuasive in a primary dominated by Trump remains to be seen, but Bush seems hell-bent on using the contrast.
“I am fearless when it relates to applying and embracing the conservative cause,” he said. “That’s how we win.”