Reports of Jeb Bush's political death may be greatly exaggerated. Not only is Bush essentially locked in a statistical tie for second place in New Hampshire, depending on which poll you prefer, but he's also enjoying the benefits of being largely ignored by the media.
The milieu of lowered expectations can sometimes be a gift and so it is proving for Bush. While Americans, and especially the media, have been riveted by Barnum & Bailey's last elephant act featuring Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Bush has been quietly meeting with small groups in town halls in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"It's amazing, you can do a town-hall meeting and there could be 25 questions," said Bush on Monday in a telephone interview. "Sometimes there's a process question, but 20 out of 25 are about 'What are you going to do about Social Security, student loans, how do we take out ISIS?'
"This alternative universe of the political ecosystem is not necessarily what people care about."
Alas, he admitted, comprehensive plans on things that matter "don't resonate in the age of insult."
"The solutions are there ... but you're not going to do a wonk-a-thon in 90 seconds. I try to purge all of that from my head before debates."
What Bush means is that he's had to adapt his wonky ways to the debates, which he concedes are more important than ever. To this end, he has been mastering the "power of three," he said. Instead of answering questions in paragraphs, which comes more naturally to someone who has actual plans as opposed to one-liners and superlatives signifying nothing Bush now delivers bullets.
"Benghazi, Russia reset, Iran deal."
But I'm jumping ahead.
Before a general election against presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, a heretofore unlikely scenario for Bush, there are the primary contests and yet more debates. The next one for Republicans is Thursday on Fox Business . This round seems a natural showcase for uber-businessman Trump, but Bush differs with this assumption.
Depending on how questions are framed, and despite his preference to focus on Clinton's weaknesses, he's loaded for bear when it comes to Trump's presumed business acumen. If the question to Bush begins with something like You've said Trump isn't a serious candidate , "I'm going to go after him," said Bush. "The problem is there's too much low-hanging fruit."
Bush plans to highlight Trump's multiple bankruptcies, his company's massive layoffs, and people "getting stiffed," including a widow, Vera Coking, whose house Trump attempted to replace in the mid-1990s with a parking lot, invariably described as a "limousine parking lot," for one of his Atlantic City casinos, using eminent domain via New Jersey's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
"This is anathema to conservatives," Bush said, referring to conservative opposition to use of eminent domain for private development. Even though Coking defeated Trump in a lawsuit, the Supreme Court in 2005 upheld the government's right to seize private property for private development, a ruling that 80 percent of Americans disapproved of.
Bush and other conservatives have long hoped this episode might prove damaging to Trump, especially in New Hampshire, where similar cases have been in the forefront recently. But television ads in Iowa from the anti-tax group Club for Growth about Trump's support for "massive new power to take private property and give it to corporations" don't seem to have hurt him thus far. And the latest polls show Trump surging in New Hampshire.
It seems that nothing Trump does or says can dislodge him from first place. Yet, Bush would say. There's still time to win or lose but Bush highlights his campaign's better-than-anybody's ground game, his very recent doubling of staff in New Hampshire, a proven record of governance, and policies put in place while he was governor of Florida that remain in place, a rarity.
Mary Ann Lindley, editorial page editor of the Tallahassee Democrat during Bush's governorship and a county commissioner since 2012, used to refer to his administration's motto as, "We hate government and we're here to run it." Although not a fan of Bush's at the time, she now views him as "a brain surgeon (ha) compared to [current Gov.] Rick Scott. And compared to the other Republicans, I'd have to say he's got the intellectual heft I'd appreciate in a president. Not that the voters in general like that sort of thing."
As for Bush's path to victory? "One path," he said, "is surviving."