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CONCORD, USA – In a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” New Hampshire’s primary Tuesday, February 9 is do or die for Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.
“I don’t really follow the pundits because it’s not good for my health,” joked the former Florida governor in a question and answer session with voters in a school cafeteria Friday.
“I know I’ve been written off,” said Bush, who must beat his establishment rivals next week or consider giving up.
“You know what gives me confidence? New Hampshire,” he added to huge applause.
Bush’s campaign sees the state as critical to his path to the nomination. Finishing strong after the Iowa caucuses, where he placed a disappointing sixth with 2.8% of the vote, is imperative.
The son and brother of two US presidents, Bush cracked jokes at the expense of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and delighted a friendly crowd drawn by his pedigree, moderate conservatism and experience.
He admitted he may not be the best debater, but said he has the best temperament, experience and knowledge to be commander-in-chief.
If he falters, experts warn, Bush would confirm the narrative painted by critics: that he is a tarnished candidate unable to generate enthusiasm for yet another Bush presidency amid the current appetite for outsiders like Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
To bounce back after stumbles in the first two states would be a herculean task for the 62-year-old.
“This is a big deal folks. New Hampshire has a chance to reset this race,” Lindsey Graham, Republican former senator for South Carolina, told the standing-room-only crowd in the Concord school.
“I hope you will take the chance to give Jeb some momentum because we need it.”
‘No killer instinct’
Senator and Florida rival Marco Rubio has tagged Bush “desperate,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called him “fake” and Trump infamously labeled Bush a “low-energy” loser whose supporters are spending mountains of money to no avail.
“I wouldn’t say desperation, but there’s serious concern” in the Bush camp, professor Linda Fowler of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, an expert on US elections, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Mired in single-digit support, squeezed into a crowded establishment lane with two governors including Christie and Ohio’s John Kasich, and his measured tone overwhelmed by the loud rhetoric of the 2016 presidential race, Bush faces a steep climb out of irrelevance.
He is running fifth in New Hampshire, at 9.7%, but polls at just half that nationally, according to the latest RealClearPolitics poll averages.
“I think the press in a way have almost killed Jeb’s campaign,” said David Stotler, a teacher from Sutton, New Hampshire.
“I think on the news he plays well to these small audiences,” he said. “But for the debate stage and the television audience, I don’t think he has the killer instinct.”
Bush steps back onto the stage Saturday, February 6 for the last Republican debate before the primary – potentially crucial when the latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll says a third of likely Republican voters could still change their mind.
Deep-pocketed supporters have poured $100 million into the Bush machinery, but their investment is under severe threat.
Rumors have swirled of donors bailing on Bush and switching to the more telegenic Rubio, who beat expectations in Iowa and finished third, one point behind Trump.
Too polite, says mom
At least one Bush backer, Nevada assemblyman David Gardner, has publicly switched his endorsement to Rubio.
Eager to stop the bleeding, the popular family matriarch Barbara Bush, 90, campaigned Friday with her second son in New Hampshire.
In an interview on CBS News with Jeb at her side, she said her son was “almost too polite,” suggesting he needed to toughen up.
“I don’t advise him, but if I gave him advise, I would say: ‘Why don’t you interrupt like the other people do'” during the debates, she said.
“I’ve gotten better at interrupting, mom. Come on,” Jeb responded.
It was a telling moment for Bush, who has been singled out for appearing awkward on the campaign trail.
Bush is under intense pressure to up his game, but the immediate challenge is to outperform establishment rivals Christie and Kasich in New Hampshire – in which case his campaign has every chance of remaining viable heading into the next contest, in South Carolina.
“I think I might vote for Jeb,” Kevin Malvey, a radio DJ, told AFP after attending Concord’s town hall.
“I think for Jeb Bush to move on he has to be in the top 3 in New Hampshire,” he said. “I think he can. I sense some momentum.” – Jennie Matthew, AFP/Rappler.com