Jeb Bush says he misjudged the intensity of anger among Republican voters before his White House campaign and believes the country in 2016 is “dramatically different” than in past elections.
Yet he insists he’s still a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and one who has broadened his mission to include defending conservativism from GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
“I just think it’s important to fight this fight,” Bush said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t know what the consequences politically for me are. But I do think it’s important that the conservative party nominate a conservative, and someone that understands the role of America in the world.”
In particular, Bush reaffirmed his commitment to conservative social issues in an AP Conversation, the latest in a series of extended interviews with the candidates to become the next president. Speaking to the AP in Iowa, he said the Supreme Court should overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling affirming abortion rights. And, as he has for weeks, he pummeled Trump incessantly — and accused him of hijacking conservatism.
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But as the state’s leadoff Feb. 1 caucuses draw closer, the Republican Party’s summertime front-runner shows few signs of momentum. Bush is favored by just 4 percent of likely caucus-goers in the Iowa Poll, published Wednesday by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News, down 2 points in the past month and mired in sixth place.
The former Florida governor isn’t giving up. Yet rather than talking about winning in the early voting states, Bush says he’s working to “beat expectations” in the February contests before moving “into March as a candidate that’s viable.”
“After that, the fur starts flying pretty quick,” he said. “We’ll be viable.”
The son of one president and brother of another, Bush told AP this week he was never comfortable with his place as the early favorite for the GOP nomination. This, despite winning over many of Mitt Romney’s donors from 2012 en route to raising more than $100 million last year to support his bid.
But that political pedigree and fundraising prowess scared no other rivals, least of all Trump, who got into the race the day after Bush in June.
Bush told AP he failed to predict Trump’s popularity, reflected in the real estate mogul’s sustained lead among GOP voters in preference polls and the large, raucous crowds he draws to his rallies.
“This is dramatically different, because the country is dramatically different, and people are reflecting their anger and angst in a way that is very different than any time that I can recall,” Bush said. “And I’ve been involved in politics for a long while.”
Bush’s vow to champion conservative principles to counter Trump’s rise came hours before President Barack Obama condemned “voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background” in his final State of the Union address.
That veiled reference to Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was echoed by South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley. In the official Republican response to Obama’s speech, she called on voters to tune out “the siren call of the angriest voices.”
It’s a message Bush has carried forward for weeks, predicting a moment when Republican primary voters would start to see Trump as more showman than statesman and begin to favor an experienced leader in uncertain economic times and perilous ones overseas.
That hasn’t happened.
As Bush’s campaign and well-funded super PAC search for a spark, he has more recently seized upon Trump’s past contributions to Democrats, moderate social positions and public praise of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to show that he’s a charlatan whom others are too meek to take on.
“The pursuit of that, of protecting the conservative cause, it’s being hijacked by Donald Trump, who’s not a conservative,” Bush said. “And others are cautious about expressing this, because God forbid you get into a Twitter war with a guy who has a lot of free time on his hands, I guess.”