The Jeb Bush presidential campaign people deny it in a high-energy way so unlike their famously even-tempered boss: Tonight's South Carolina primary is not a litmus test for the former Florida governor's so-far fizzling presidential campaign. If he does lousy here, expect him to trudge on, through Nevada and next into Super Tuesday on March 1.
There is no quit in their guy despite the "low energy" Trumped-up label, they assure me, just a deep-seated determination to win based on a belief that Republican primary voters will eventually see what they're getting in him-a proven leader, a successful governor and a policy expert. What they're getting in the others: a rogues gallery of ideologues, neophytes and one very crazy billionaire reality show host.
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There is a part of me who really wants to believe this spin. Jeb Bush is beyond all doubt the most qualified person to lead this country as president. He is honest, decent and smart. He was a successful governor espousing Conservative principles in possibly the most culturally and economically diverse states in the country--no easy feat.
For every flirtation with big government like his affinity for Common Core education standards that deserves scorn, or milquetoast explanation for illegal immigration (it's an "act of love"), there is his very early and principled stances on school choice, lower taxes, smaller government. Yes I know, after he left as Florida governor in 2007 Jeb worked for Lehman Brothers, the firm that collapsed and sparked the 2008 financial crisis. But he did so as 99 percent of the people there did: as someone who did deals, and helped individuals and companies make investments and get the financing they needed, which by the way is actually a good thing no matter how many times the socialist Democratic president candidate, Bernie Sanders, says it isn't.
More than that, he ran the most issue-oriented campaign among the GOP contenders. I know the race will be known as The Donald show for all the obvious reasons. But you don't look to Trump for detailed policy prescriptions. Senator Ted Cruz is a smart guy, but when was the last time he really broke down his tax plan? Senator Marco Rubio has the soaring Reaganesque speech stuff down, but you also get the impression he needs more time in the Senate to understand how things really work.
Jeb, on the other hand, can unpack just about any major policy issue put before him. Not a bad quality for a leader of the free world.
Ok now the bad part: Jeb obviously lost something between the time he left the Governor's office in Florida and today. I could see it almost immediately during his announcement in the summer: The event opened with Spanish folk singers (not exactly a way to gain favor with the base and its immigration concerns), and featured Bush downplaying his conservative record with establishment nods to the need for welfare, and multiculturalism.
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That might have worked in 2006 but it is not working in 2016 after the GOP base has suffered through an unrelentingly, aggressive progressive agenda of President Obama. Then came Donald Trump who not just labeled Jeb as "low energy" but underscored his weakness as a retail candidate. This is because Bush finds it so difficult relating to average GOP voters, who want a war on issues like immigration, Obamacare and hate the political correctness that Jeb went out of his way to embrace.
It's been mostly downhill for Jeb ever since. He got blown out in Iowa and lost handily in New Hampshire. South Carolina, you would think, is made for a Bush; his brother, the former president, remains popular in the state as does the entire family. And yet he trails in all the polls, even as his campaign staff assures me he will surprise the naysayers when all the votes are counted tonight.
The bottom line: Jeb Bush will not be the Republican nominee if he doesn't pull off a surprise showing in South Carolina tonight.
He may not know it, "he's too stubborn to concede defeat," says one major fundraiser. His staff may not want to admit it, but every major donor I have spoken to in the past week says this is the unfortunate reality Bush is facing.
And with that will come pressure to drop out of the race from the guys who want a Republican to win because they are really getting scared that a socialist or a near clone who has been forced to adopt far-left positions might become president.
In other words, a vast portion of the Republican donor class that has remained solidly behind the Bush machine will in the minutes after a significant defeat start looking at Marco Rubio, and possibly Ted Cruz as their saviors. I am told one top Bush donor might even break bread with Donald Trump, because the alternative of a Hillary Clinton or a Bernie Sanders presidency is so revolting.
So after tonight's possible (some would say likely defeat) Jeb may not announce his campaign has come to an end, but he will see the writing on the wall fast enough with donors jumping ship and money drying up.
Then he will do what needs to be done and quit in the near future. A sad end to what could have been something great.
A couple more odds and ends before tonight's results...
--Private polling shows a surge for Rubio and Cruz on Friday, which has people in both camps talking about a three-way race when South Carolina is over (Trump, Cruz, and Rubio) and others dropping out in short order. Possible upset: Cruz overtaking Trump, according to political operatives despite The Donald's seemingly significant lead in most polls.
--GOP operatives say they are getting ready to accept the possibility of a Trump nomination but they also don't miss an opportunity to point out an interesting statistic: A huge swath of voters (in some polls as much as two-thirds) say they won't vote for Trump under any circumstances. In other words, the post-South Carolina GOP establishment spin will go something like this: A vote for Trump is a vote for Hillary Clinton.