The strengths and weaknesses of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were on display last week during a campaign appearance here in North Carolina.
At a Garner manufacturing plant, Bush laid out a major program of tax cuts that he said would kick-start America’s economy. Bush exuded gravitas. His proposal was filled with major specific policy proposals. His delivery was precise, cool, and professional. He called for nonpartisan cooperation and a more civil tone to the national political conversation.
But Bush was also humorless and lacking any folksy touch. He did not mention his family, had few local references, and did not mention being a guest on Stephen Colbert’s first program hosting “The Late Show” the previous night.
Bush had drawn a laugh when Colbert asked about the exclamation point in his “Jeb!” slogan.
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“It connotes excitement,” Bush said.
There was not a lot of excitement evident in the Morris & Associates manufacturing plant on U.S. 70 in Garner where shopping centers are replacing old tobacco fields.
But maybe you don’t need excitement with Jeb Bush, because the Bushes are a known quantity.
In an election cycle when many voters are turning against establishment politics, the Bush name is both a blessing and a curse.
North Carolina has traditionally been Bush Country. His father, George H.W. Bush carried the state twice, in 1988 and in 1992. His brother, George W. Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004.
Bush brings to the campaign a loyal network of people who worked in the campaigns or past administrations. Some of them were in the audience for the speech last week, people such as Raleigh attorney Jim Cain, a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, and Aldona Wos, a former U.S. ambassador to Estonia who also was a former secretary of Health and Human Services.
Helping arrange the Garner event was Jonathan Felts of Raleigh, former White House political director under George W. Bush.
In the early organizing for the March primary, Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have shown the most activity.
“Certainly you start out with people who have fond relationships with his father and his brother,” said state Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville, state co-chairman of the Bush campaign. “But you also have the negative aspect of that as well. It is a double-edged sword. The campaign is mindful of that.”
“We are trying to focus on what Gov. Bush can do,” Jeter said. “Not necessarily on what his father and his brother did, as much as we honor and respect the two of them.”
All the Tar Heel races won by the Bushes were in the general election, where their mainstream brand of conservatism seemed to go over well in a moderately conservative state. In previous years, North Carolina’s primary was held in May, long after the nomination fight was decided.
But this test will be in a March primary that has been moved up by the legislature in an effort to make North Carolina voters relevant in the nomination process. The primary electorate is far more conservative.
There have been grumblings that Bush is insufficiently conservative. A survey taken in mid-August by Public Policy Polling found that Bush had a favorable/unfavorable rating of 54/27 percent among “somewhat conservative” North Carolina Republicans. But he had a 37/47 percent favorable/unfavorable rating among “very conservative” Tar Heel Republicans.
The Tea Party movement has evolved in part because many people believe that both parties have failed to get government spending under control.
Overall, Bush is now polling third among North Carolina Republicans with 13 percent of the vote behind two Tea Party favorites, Donald Trump (24 percent) and Ben Carson (14 percent) according to the PPP poll.
“What if he was Jeb Jones or Jeb Smith? They would think differently,” said Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, who is supporting Bush. “Perhaps some have a connotation of his brother, who I supported also and who I would support again.”
“Jeb is his own man,” Torbett said. “Jeb has done well during his two terms.”
Jeter said that when Bush was governor of Florida “he was considered the most radical conservative governor in the nation.” So he doesn’t know how Bush has been tagged as insufficiently conservative.
Jeter said that Bush’s soft-spoken style should not be confused for a lack of conviction or fire.
Bush is getting some conservative support. His North Carolina steering committee includes Sens. Tom Apodoca of Hendersonville and Brent Jackson of Autryville. Although they have not endorsed, two notable conservatives showed up at the Bush event last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Jimmy Broughton, the former administrative assistant to Sen. Jesse Helms.
“He has governed conservative,” Jeter said. “His plans are conservative. His actions are conservative. He is his own man with his own plan.”
Which may be why his signs read “Jeb!” and not Bush.