Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush dismissed claims that across-the-board pay cuts mean his campaign is struggling and said he wants to focus on early primary states.
“South Carolina elects presidents, and I intend to be here to run aggressively,” Bush told reporters Saturday before participating in a presidential forum hosted by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott on Charleston’s Daniel Island.
“We’ve made an adjustment in our campaign. That’s what leaders do.”
Asked to respond to rumors his campaign is in trouble, Bush said, “Blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s my answer: Blah, blah, blah.”
The former Florida governor – once a front-runner, now trailing in national and S.C. polls – cast himself as an experienced leader who would persuade Congress to come together to improve the country.
Bush also addressed the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in first and second place, respectively, in GOP presidential polls.
“There’s been a new phenomenon in our party – the rise of candidates that have had no practical experience in politics,” Bush said. “They’re the front-runners right now. They’ll be held to account just like all of us will.”
Bush said the campaign “adjustments” will mean a greater focus on the early primary contests, including South Carolina.
“That’s where you’re going to see me,” he said.
Bush said his campaign has raised “a lot of money” and will get a boost from a super PAC working separately to help elect him. For example, he said, “I was in Detroit. We raised $540,000. I don’t think anybody else is coming close to that.”
Scott, R-North Charleston, who has been hosting the forums with GOP candidates around the state, praised Bush in his introduction to the 500 or so people in the audience, calling Bush one of the most successful governors in Florida and nationally.
“He led the fight on one of my favorite issues: school choice. Here’s a governor who understands how to get things done,” Scott said.
Bush touted his record as governor in cutting the budget and creating and expanding private school choice, “ending social promotion in the third grade” by holding children back who are not reading on grade level and growing the number of charter schools.
He also railed against a higher education system he characterized as the “only institution that works less than Congress. ... They’re operating on a three-day work week. You can’t get a class on Fridays.”
The audience was receptive to Bush, applauding him throughout the discussion. Bush answered questions on what he would do to improve the economy – cut taxes and regulations, he said – keep Guantanamo Bay prisoners from being relocated in the United States and improve America’s reputation overseas.
Bush praised U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, for leading a U.S. House panel’s investigation into the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Gowdy and the panel on Thursday grilled former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the attacks in what Democrats have said is a politically motivated probe aimed at toppling the Democratic presidential frontrunner.
Gowdy joined Scott on stage in asking Bush questions in the hourlong forum.
Bush said he would push to give Israel “access to the most sophisticated military equipment. ... Iran right now does not think we’re serious,” he said, adding, “If we gave (Israel) the capacity to strike – I’m not suggesting that that happen – it would create a deterrent.”
During the forum, Bush also taunted Trump, who leads the GOP nomination contest nationally and in South Carolina, compared to Bush, who trails in fifth and sixth place, respectively.
“I’ve got a lot of really cool things that I could do other than sit around being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke.”
“Elect Trump if you want that,” he said.
Bush said in past elections, the eventual nominee started as an underdog. For example, he said, Barack Obama surged after this point in the campaign in 2007.
“If you want somebody who has the heart for people, who can fight for people and who can fix these things, then there are a couple other people. I believe I’m the best one.”
Polling in S.C. GOP primary, an average
Donald Trump: 33.7 percent
Ben Carson: 18.3 percent
Carly Fiorina: 7 percent
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio: 6.7 percent
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas: 6.3 percent
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida: 5.7 percent
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham: 4 percent