David Owens proudly voted for both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush for president. When they spoke politically, it was like listening to old family friends.
But Owens walked out a rally at Easley High School on Sunday thinking his Bush-voting streak might end Saturday in the nation’s first-in-the-South primary.
“I like Jeb Bush. He’s experienced, intelligent, and I like the Bush family,” said Owens, a 77-year-old Easley resident. “But the deciding factor for me is who can beat Hillary Clinton. That’s what will probably get me to vote for Marco Rubio.”
The ties between the Bush family and South Carolina run long and deep.
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George Herbert Walker Bush won the state’s Republican primary twice. S.C. Republicans then gave George W. Bush a critical primary victory in 2000 after he’d been defeated in New Hampshire by John McCain.
Now it’s Jeb Bush’s turn to seek S.C. salvation. He’s hoping family ties, political connections and the state’s military tradition can rescue a campaign that is being battered by the cross-currents of an anti-establishment fervor among the electorate and a rising populism that’s attracting voters to outsiders such as Donald Trump.
Bush reached for the family tree Monday, bringing George W. Bush in for a North Charleston rally, the former president’s first public campaign event on his brother’s behalf.
“I came here for two reasons, one because I care deeply about Jeb, and, two, because I care very deeply about our country,” Bush told the crowd. “The presidency is a serious job that requires sound judgment and good ideas. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Jeb Bush has the experience and the character to be a great president.”
The nation’s 43rd president said his brother will “rise above petty name-calling,” a not-so-veiled dig at Trump. Acknowledging the anger of the electorate, the former president warned South Carolina voters that “we don’t need someone in the oval (office) who mirrors and inflames our frustration.”
Whether it works is up to Jeb.
“He should appropriately be managing expectations,” said Andrew Card, who was George W. Bush’s White House chief of staff and now is president of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce University. “I don’t think he can walk in (and) the presumption is that he will have the same kind of support that his dad had or his brother had. But, at least, he has an entree to get that support.”
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Information and Communications and a former CNN White House correspondent, said Bush needs to finish in the top three in the six-candidate race to be seen as viable in the eyes of voters in the March 1 Super Tuesday contests and campaign donors.
“That’s what South Carolina does – it squeezes it down to three, maybe four,” Bierbauer said.
Bush has work to do. Polls show him lagging in fourth or fifth place.
“We’ve been sort of the king-makers for the Bushes, at least the nominee-makers,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor. “But a lot of people here who have voted Bush won’t vote Bush this time. It’s just competition. He has a stronger field than his father or his brother had.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, who endorsed Bush after ending his own presidential bid, thinks the Bush legacy in South Carolina is strong enough to pull him through.
“It means a lot, the family name is good here,” Graham said. “There’s still a fondness for the Bush family. Their values are close to South Carolina values.”
But times and voter attitudes have changed since the days when the words of powerful politicians like the late GOP Gov. Carroll Campbell and the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, carried sway, and that could spell trouble for Bush.
There’s a new generation of influential elected officials, exemplified by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy. Scott and Gowdy have tossed their support to Rubio. Haley hasn’t endorsed a candidate yet.
“For so long, South Carolina politics, given the extremes on either side, really had a core of moderates,” said Blease Graham, an assistant dean at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service and a longtime expert on S.C. politics. “Bush 41 appealed to a moderate group – ‘We’re conservative but we’re still compassionate.’ Now there’s a kind of generational replacement from the Generation X-ers, and now we have millennials, who don’t always share the moderate views of an older generation.”
Like David Owens, Richard Blevins voted for Bush 41 and Bush 43. He’s taking a pass on Jeb Bush in favor of Rubio.
“The primary reason is I’m afraid of the Bush legacy – there’s such a divide,” said Blevins, 37, of Seneca. “There are a lot of people, including Republicans, who disapproved of the Iraq War and don’t support Jeb, and I think he’d have a hard time leading because of that.”
Daniel Nichols, a 36-year-old from Central, added some of Jeb Bush’s troubles in South Carolina are of his own making.
“For the first six months, he was running away from his family,” said Nichols, who voted for George W. Bush twice. “He was saying he wasn’t establishment, that he was his own man. But your last name is Bush. You can’t pretend to be something that you’re not.”
Nichols hasn’t ruled out voting for Jeb Bush. After watching Bush aggressively go up against Trump in Saturday’s debate in Greenville and hearing Bush embrace his family legacy, he says he’s now deciding whether to vote for the former Florida governor or Rubio.
At Bush’s Charleston rally, Debbie Brooker, a local pharmacist, said she’s narrowed her choices to Ben Carson and Bush. While she was excited to see George W. Bush – “an excellent president” – she said his appearance won’t sway her decision.
“If I vote for Jeb, it’s going to be because I’m voting for the man, not the family.”