Forty-five minutes late, Jeb Bush hurried onto the porch of a crowded barbecue restaurant where more than 100 people waited for the Republican presidential hopeful earlier this week.
The former Florida governor – hoping to revive his struggling campaign and become the third Bush elected president – launched into a stump speech before taking questions at Hudson’s Smokehouse, a favorite stop for GOP candidates.
“Donald Trump’s not going to get the nomination. He’s not going to be president,” Bush said of the GOP front-runner near the end of the hour, the crowd clapping and cheering in agreement.
Bush’s Wednesday visit came as he promised to double his presence in early primary states, building up his ground game in hopes of contacting more voters and winning their votes in contests just weeks away.
“We’re all in,” Bush told the audience Wednesday, just hours after news broke that his campaign was pulling $3 million in TV ads from Iowa and South Carolina and was shifting campaign staff members from Florida into early nominating states.
Defending his decision, Bush noted a super-PAC is buying television ads backing him. That PAC, Right to Rise, has raised $100 million to support Bush.
The Bush campaign also has been moving swiftly to lock down support from onetime S.C. supporters of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, who last month abandoned his candidacy for the GOP nomination. Graham’s former supporters will strengthen the Bush campaign’s grassroots and financial positions, said Brett Doster, a S.C. adviser for Bush.
The day after his exit from the race, Graham’s state finance chairman – former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins – endorsed Bush. The Bush campaign now has more than two dozen members of Graham’s finance, political and grassroots efforts on board, Doster said.
“I do get a sense that they were prepared more so than any other campaign to take advantage of Sen. Graham's exit from the race,” said Lexington GOP consultant Walter Whetsell.
Still, some supporters lament Bush’s performance thus far in the GOP race. Bush entered the race a favorite – buoyed by PAC money and powerful political ties – but fell swiftly.
In polls of South Carolina’s Feb. 20 GOP presidential primary, Bush peaked at 15 percent support last summer but dropped off swiftly, charting only minor gains. With 7.3 percent support among S.C. GOP voters, Bush now trails Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in first and second place, as well as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in third and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in fourth, according to Real Clear Politics.
Bush’s most recent campaign adjustments could improve his chances of success, Whetsell said. “The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.”
‘There’s still hope’
Supporters are hopeful Bush will stage a comeback and secure the nomination.
David Lobb, a retired U.S. Army colonel who drove from Aiken to see Bush, was impressed with Wednesday’s turnout, considering the rain.
“I want experienced leadership,” said Lobb, a former Graham supporter.
Bush appeared relaxed, joking with the audience and giving detailed answers to questions on Social Security, offshore drilling, health care and veteran’s issues.
Asked about the National Security Agency’s spying on U.S. citizens’ phone records – a sore spot for the GOP’s libertarian-leaning activists – Bush said the program protects U.S. citizens.
“I don’t believe they’re violating people’s civil liberties,” he said.
While some Bush supporters say his more moderate conservative stances mean he can beat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in November’s general election, they question whether he can win the GOP nomination.
“He’s the most qualified,” Michael Norton, a chemical engineer from Aiken, said of Bush, his top choice in the race. But, he added, “I’m not sure he’s the most electable” in the primary.
Bush’s familial ties to two former presidents also have not helped him in a year when political newcomers are soaring in the polls, Lobb’s wife said.
Criticizing Bush as part of a political “dynasty” is “unfair to him,” Patricia Lobb said of Bush, who she hopes will rebound.
“There’s still hope.”
Nominee must beat Clinton
Attacking billionaire Trump is part of Bush’s strategy.
Wednesday morning, Bush’s campaign released a web video attacking Trump for comments he has made on the Bible, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Islamic State terrorist organization.
Bush has dubbed Trump, who drew a crowd of about 2,500 Wednesday in Hilton Head, the “chaos candidate.”
Bush’s supporters seem ready for Trump’s decline, which they hope will start in Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucus, where Cruz has taken the lead in polls.
Meanwhile, Bush’s strategy is to lay the foundation for a strong ground game, Doster said.
The campaign plans to increase its paid workers in South Carolina to 17 from seven by mid-January, he said.
Bush’s son, George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner, also will be coming to South Carolina to help with the effort.
Doster said the Bush campaign has commitments from about 750 S.C. volunteers. The goal is to push that number to more than 1,000.
The same plan holds true for other early nominating states, Bush told reporters. “We're reallocating our resources to voter contact and a ground game that will be second to none – it already is,” he said.
Asked how he plans to overcome concerns from some of his supporters about his failure to gain traction in the polls, Bush said, “I’m electable” and pointed to the general election faceoff with the Democratic nominee.
“You ask real people – and the polls show this – I do pretty good against Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Ultimately, the party nominee has to beat Hillary Clinton or all of this is just idle talk.”
S.C. GOP presidential primary
A look at where the top five 2016 Republican presidential candidates stand in S.C. polls:
Donald Trump – 33.7 percent
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – 19.3 percent
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida – 12.7 percent
Ben Carson – 11.3 percent
Jeb Bush – 7.3 percent
SOURCE: Real Clear Politics average of polls