Jeb Bush is playing his trump card in South Carolina — his family name.
Bush memorably declared early in his presidential bid that he would run as his “own man,” independent from his family’s legacy in the White House. But, in a state that has been kind to his kin, Bush is pinning his hopes on his family moniker to boost his flagging candidacy.
In the Republican debate Saturday in Greenville, S.C., one of Bush’s most memorable moments came when he defended his family against Donald Trump.
“I’m sick and tired of him going after my family,” Bush said. “My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind. My mom is the strongest woman I know.”
And on Monday, Bush staged a rally in North Charleston, S.C., with his brother George W. Bush — a rare foray into politics for the former president. From the lectern, George W. Bush praised his younger brother as a candidate with “the experience and the character to be a great president.” In an interview later with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, the former president said he had given the speech because, simply: “Brother asked.”
This strategy by Jeb Bush’s campaign to embrace the family name, rather than run from it, is an escalation from New Hampshire, where former first lady Barbara Bush joined her son on the campaign trail for the first time. Barbara Bush will return to trail in South Carolina later this week, the Bush team announced Tuesday. The campaign, meanwhile, has littered the state with mail bearing George W. Bush’s image and endorsement, as well as ads featuring him.
Bush’s team has bet that the potential political upside of trotting out the family, not to mention the media coverage that comes with it, is greater at this stage than the risk of pigeonholing Jeb Bush as a dynastic candidate. His aides have calculated that there is still a large reservoir of good will for the Bush name among South Carolina Republicans, who granted George W. Bush a narrow, redemptive victory over John McCain during the 2000 presidential primary.
“They’ve looked at the barometer, and they’ve read it very well,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican who has endorsed Ted Cruz. “There’s a lot of Bush respect in this state, and they’ve tapped into that. And I think that’s a smart play.”
But Duncan added this caveat: “At the end of the day, I don’t see that moving Bush in the polls or in the ultimate vote tallies all that much. He’ll have a following; he just hasn’t gotten any momentum.”
Indeed, Palmetto State voters appear poised to support Trump, the very antithesis of Bush. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump leads by 18 points on average, with Cruz and Marco Rubio also finishing ahead of Bush.
The Palmetto State has changed fundamentally since George W. Bush last campaigned in a Republican primary there 16 years ago, just as the Republican electorate has shifted. The state threw a curveball in 2012 by awarding the GOP primary to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose only other victory came in his home state of Georgia. But Gingrich ran as an anti-establishment candidate against Mitt Romney, a message that resonated in South Carolina.
Following the Republican debate in New Hampshire, Sen. Lindsey Graham insisted, “South Carolina is Bush country.” Graham, who has endorsed Jeb Bush and campaigned alongside him, is working hard to make it so.
But there has been some recognition from Bush that South Carolina, the state that launched his brother to the presidency, may no longer be Bush country after all.
“I think we’ll do better than fifth here,” Bush told CBS’s “This Morning” on Monday. “I’m in it for the long haul.”