CENTRAL, S.C. — Jeb Bush has been fighting all week to dismiss talk of his demise.
But his final South Carolina campaign event here felt bittersweet on Friday night. Staffers and volunteers hugged warmly, realizing that they had just one more day to convince Republicans to pick their guy. The hugs came as aides strongly denied reports that staffers are shopping their resumes in anticipation of the campaign’s conclusion.
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Bush’s most devoted surrogate, stood in the high school that he graduated from and lashed out at GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
“I can’t believe the Republican nominee is going to be someone who said that George W. Bush lied about the Iraq war. That comes from kook-land, folks,” he told about 300 people. “I can’t believe we’re going to nominate someone who said George W. Bush was responsible for 9/11. That cannot happen. If that happens, we deserve to be beat.”
Turning to Bush, Graham said: “Thank you for standing up, for just being decent.”
Bush delivered the same argument he’s been making for months: That Republicans need to pick a sober, principled and experienced guy over his noisier, less-tested rivals.
“If you want a politician to just bob and weave, then I’m not your guy,” he said.
Earlier in Spartanburg, he told voters, “You can’t talk trash when you’re running for president. … You can’t run and cut when the going gets tough. You can’t focus group things. You can’t be a poll-driven politician who runs away when things get tough.”
Bush knows this, he said, because “I’ve had a front row seat watching history” made by his father, George H.W. Bush and his brother, George W. Bush.
But polls suggest that Jeb Bush is getting farther from his chance to make presidential history. Donald Trump maintains a wide lead over the field, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in second place. Mired in the middle, Bush is tied with or trailing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and barely keeping ahead of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
There are plans to fly to Nevada on Sunday and to hold events in Las Vegas and Reno. From there, the schedule is less certain, but aides talk about plans to campaign in Texas and elsewhere.
If Bush reads this story — and reporters who follow him know that he reads a fair amount of the coverage — he would dismiss it as just the latest round of misguided punditry.
“It’s all been decided, apparently,” he joked Wednesday in Summerlin, S.C. “The pundits have already figured it out. We don’t have to go vote. I should stop campaigning maybe.”
In Greenville on Friday, he called reporters “clowns” as a supporter urged him to keep going. He sat down moments later for an interview with the Showtime television program, “The Circus,” which is documenting this year’s incredible campaign season.
The fast start and ensuing struggles of the Bush campaign are well-documented. But as attention has shifted to Trump, Rubio and Cruz, what’s it been like for Bush? Here are a few observations:
1. Yes, he still attacks Trump, but Bush & Co. are furious with Rubio.
Trump messed with Bush’s confidence and strategy a long time ago. But the candidate and his team are increasingly stung by the Florida senator, believing that the Rubio campaign is chiefly responsible for fueling talk of Bush’s anticipated downfall. And Rubio won the highly-coveted endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who Bush worked hard to win over. He even sent George W. Bush to meet with her on Monday.
Aides and supporters are privately furious that the political press focuses so much on Bush’s viability instead of raising questions about Rubio — who also trails Trump and Cruz and has struggled to raise money.
Bush now openly mocks his Miami neighbor on the stump.
In Beaufort this week, Bush called it “kind of a low blow” for Rubio to question his foreign policy experience — given his 89 trips abroad in recent years, his leadership of the Florida National Guard and the international trade missions he led as Florida governor.
“Wow, coming from a guy whose office has a hard time saying actually what his accomplishments are,” Bush said on Wednesday. “Who says that — going to a hearing to listen to smart people talk about things instead of actually leading.”
As he wrapped up opening remarks in Greenville on Friday, he invited the crowd to ask questions: “This is not a Rubio town hall, we actually answer questions here,” he said.
2. Lindsey Graham is Bush’s new BFF — and his best surrogate.
When the senator dropped out of the presidential race, he quickly became Bush’s opening act and chief attack dog. Here’s a sampling of what he said Friday in Spartanburg:
About Trump: “The one thing I can tell you about Donald Trump, he has no idea what makes America great. If he did, he wouldn’t run everyone down in the country.”
About Cruz: “Does not get along well with others. Ted couldn’t make Sunday a day off. I’ve been in the Senate with Ted. Nobody works well with Ted. Because in Ted’s world, everyone’s stupid and he’s smart.”
About Rubio: “I wasn’t ready at 44 to be president of the United States. And when I compare him to Jeb, it’s not even close.”
About Ben Carson: “The world’s nicest man. If Ted Cruz made Ben Carson mad, you ought to think long and hard about Ted Cruz.”
About John Kasich: “A good man from Ohio, but he expanded Obamacare. Florida and South Carolina decided not to.”
These are all things Bush would never say — at least not as succinctly. Win or lose, Bush will owe Graham a deep debt of gratitude for devoting so much time and energy to his campaign.
4. He’s still hopelessly devoted to talking about policy.
South Carolina is less accustomed to the town hall-style format, but Bush eagerly took questions from voters all week, hoping to showcase his policy acumen.
His team distributed to voters a 47-page glossy magazine-style review of all of Bush’s policy proposals — including tax reform; plans to revamp the Department of Veterans Affairs and Interior Department; and an anti-terrorism policy. Just this week his team released a plan to reform labor union rules and the National Labor Relations Board.
Whether it matters to most voters is uncertain. But Bush was heartened on Friday when 9-year old David Ropp asked him to explain his tax policy. The boy said that he was working on a school project and was eager to hear more details.
“You seem like a bit of a policy wonk, like me?” Bush asked Ropp. “We need to stick together. Policy matters.”
— Ed O’Keefe (@edatpost) February 19, 2016
5. He’s always better with family around.
Barbara Bush. Columba Bush. George W. Bush. Laura Bush. Jeb Bush Jr. Marvin Bush. Neil Bush. They’ve all been on the road at one time or another this week alongside Jeb Bush.
And he’s immeasurably more confident and relaxed with his wife, mother or siblings around. Most of the time, his youngest son, Jeb Bush Jr., is nearby closely watching his dad’s stump speech and the crowd reaction, and greeting supporters.
For months, his family rarely showed up on the road. One wonders if they could have put him more at ease sooner.
“If you’re not supporting me, pray for my family,” he told crowds several times this week.
6. Yup, no more glasses.
He started going sans spectacles in January during television interviews and this week campaigned for the first time without them.
He’s now wearing contacts that he says he picked up during an eye appointment back home in Miami on Monday. Aides, supporters and the reporters who follow him agree: He looks much better without glasses — and should have stopped wearing them a long time ago.