With just three months away from the start of actual voting, former Gov. Jeb Bush and his one-time political ally, Sen. Marco Rubio, are a study in contrasts. Bush, floundering in the polls, has been widely panned by the media and political analysts for his latest debate performance while his one-time protégé appears to be surging after months of mostly run of the mill campaigning and fundraising.
Even though some are beginning to write his political epitaph, Bush insisted on Sunday that he was in the GOP presidential campaign to stay and would ride out his campaign’s current “bumpy time.”
Still reeling from a poor performance in last week’s third GOP presidential debate – one that helped chief rival Rubio break out of the pack -- Bush acknowledged nonetheless that his campaign might have reached a pivotal moment.
“I have enough self-awareness to know that this is the bumpy time of a campaign,” he told Chuck Todd in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press program that was taped on Saturday in Miami. “This is the process. I totally understand it, and I’m more than prepared to fight on.”
Bush’s subpar performance during the often chaotic two-hour debate broadcast by CNBC last Wednesday capped a week in which Bush was forced to slash his campaign budget by 40 percent and eliminate staff as increasingly skeptical donors began to pull back. Bush was panned for allowing Rubio, a Florida senator, to get the best of him during an exchange over Rubio’s spotty voting and attendance record in the Senate.
“I know that I got to get better at doing the debate,” Bush told Todd. “I mean, when I see that I’m not doing some well then I reset and I get better.”
As for the persistent critique from GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and others that Bush is a lethargic, often inarticulate candidate who lacks the fire in his belly and determination to win the nomination, the former governor largely blamed negative media coverage for what he considers a gross misperception.
“I've just got to be able to break through the clutter of all the punditry class, and I think I can do that," said Bush, the son and brother of two former Republican presidents who has struggled for months to demonstrate that he is his “own man.”
“I’m not going to play off people’s fears,” he said. “I’m not going to prey on their angst. “I’m going to offer solutions. We have a lot of candidates that I think take the easy out is to say, you know, ‘Follow me because I’m angry too,’” he said. “That’s not going to win the general election.”
Voter appeal isn’t the only condition of a winning campaign. Money talks, too. In one dramatic sign of their diverging political fortunes, billionaire New York investor Paul Singer said he was throwing his support to Rubio – a move that will assure the freshman Florida senator of a fresh infusion of millions of dollars in operating funds at a critical juncture in his campaign.
Singer, one of the wealthiest Republican donors and bundlers in the country, sent out a letter describing Rubio as the only candidate who can “navigate this complex primary process, and still be in a position to defeat” Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election, The New York Times reported.
Even with Singer’s sizable financial backing, Rubio’s road to the GOP nomination will be far from easy. His newfound media attention will also result in tougher questioning about his brief tenure in the Senate, his views on the economy, taxes and immigration reform, and nagging questions about whether the 44-year-old politician is seasoned and tough enough to be commander in chief and stand up to U.S. foes abroad. And his poll numbers have yet to get into double digits to compete with Trump and Carson.
Bush said he didn't see the 112-page memo from his presidential campaign detailing why Rubio is a "risky bet" for the Republican Party before it leaked. "Well, I read about it when it was leaked for sure,” he said. “I didn't know about the PowerPoint.”
Rubio appeared unfazed by the criticism and determined to forge ahead in his appeal to a broad range of Republican conservatives without having to attack Bush and other GOP candidates.
Asked by John Dickerson of CBS’s “Face the Nation” what he thought of reports that Bush’s campaign had dubbed him “the Republican Obama,” Rubio chuckled, "Well I don't think they mean it as a compliment. And I certainly wouldn't take it as that."
"Look, campaigns are going to say whatever they think gives them an advantage," Rubio added, "and obviously someone has convinced Jeb that attacking me is going to help his campaign."
By comparing Rubio to Obama, Bush’s strategists hope to make the point that voters would be risking electing yet another relatively inexperienced senator to run the country, with all the attendant downsides. Bush argued on Meet the Press that experience in the end will win out over flash and glibness – and that Rubio’s undisguised contempt for the Senate suggests that he lacks the grit to see things through.
“”The basic point with Marco is not that he’s not a good person or he’s not a gifted politician, everybody can see that,” Bush said. “It’s that I have proven leadership skills. I got to be governor of a state and accomplished big things. And in this era of gridlock, it’s really hard to break through. And I think he’s given up – and I think that’s the wrong thing to do.”