MIAMI — Jeb Bush promised to campaign for president “joyfully.”
Alas, candidates don’t always get to run the races they expected.
His early poll numbers slipping — and Donald Trump’s rising — Bush veered from the happy talk Tuesday. He took the Republican frontrunner head on, in sharper terms than he has before, and tried to position himself as the un-Trump — the candidate who will outlast the feverish summer-of-Trump phenomenon.
“El hombre no es conservador” — the man is not conservative, Bush told reporters after a Miami campaign stop. “Besides, he tries to personalize everything. If you’re not totally in agreement with him you’re an idiot, or stupid, or don’t have energy, or blah blah blah.”
This is the Bush some of his Florida supporters and donors have been waiting to see, a candidate with a little more edge and a little more fire who picks his shots at Trump.
Yet attacking the celebrity candidate is still a risky strategy. In seeking a two-man, Trump-vs.-Bush contest, Bush might burn Trump — or he may get burned himself, leaving an opening for another candidate to emerge as the GOP’s top choice. Some Miami Republicans hope that will be Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been biding his time in the middle of the pack.
Bush debuted his criticism of Trump — that he’s a phony Republican — a couple of weeks ago. Things ramped up Monday after Trump posted a Web video overlaying Bush’s remark last year — in which he said that illegal immigration is an “act of love” — with mug shots of three men charged with murder who were in the U.S. illegally.
“Love?” the Instagram video says. “Forget love. It’s time to get tough!”
The video, which fails to mention that Bush supports deporting serious criminals, drew quick comparisons to ads Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, ran in 1988 against Michael Dukakis over convicted felon Willie Horton. It also showed that Trump, for all of his dismissing of Bush as a rival, still considers him a top competitor worth going after.
Bush’s camp responded Monday afternoon by suggesting a President Trump would be soft on crime. By Tuesday morning, Bush had released a video of his own featuring clips of Trump interviews that, strung together, make the former Democrat sound liberal. “The Real Donald Trump,” the campaign titled it, riffing off Trump’s prolific Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump.
Trump’s campaign declined to comment. Then Trump took to Twitter.
“Yet another weak hit by a candidate with a failing campaign. Will Jeb sink as low in the polls as the others who have gone after me?” Trump wrote.
He later posted another Instagram video, this time with clips of Bush and his brother former President George W. Bush praising Democrat Hillary Clinton.
While Bush has chosen to poke Trump on issues, polls show Trump’s popularity isn’t based on ideology. Republicans like that Trump “tells it like it is,” according to a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters released this week. Forty-one percent of Trump’s supporters consider him “moderate,” compared to 35 percent who label him “conservative.” (Ten percent called him “liberal” in the poll, and only 4 percent used the term “very conservative.”)
Bush told reporters at La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana he decided to hit Trump “because he attacks me every day with barbaridades” — atrocious insults.
“That’s what he does, and it’s not good, because there are millions of people who today think their future isn’t as it should be,” said Bush, whom Trump has repeatedly characterized Bush as “low energy.”
Bush spoke mostly in Spanish. He’s bilingual and bicultural, and the country’s two major Spanish-language broadcast networks, Univision and Telemundo, are based in Miami and sent their reporters to ask questions. But Bush’s tough answers will almost certainly get less press coverage in early-primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire because they weren’t in English.
Before speaking to reporters, Bush fielded questions from high-school students, some of them so young that they were born after Bush moved into the Florida Governor’s Mansion in 1999. The campaign used back-to-school as a chance for Bush to talk about the voucher program he created that allows needy families to use corporate funds to pay for private school.
“It allows your parents to make a choice that they might otherwise not be able to have,” Bush said.
He asked one girl, a senior, where she planned to go to college. She said she didn’t know yet — and countered with a question about what the government could do to secure financial aid for students in the country illegally who might be unable to pursue professional careers because of their immigration status. Bush responded with his pitch for reforming the immigration system and giving so-called “DREAMers” brought into the country illegally by their parents a path to U.S. citizenship (others who qualify should earn “legal status,” he said).
Bush noted his wife, Columba, was born in Mexico — and that one of his daughters-in-law (nuera, one of the few words he stumbled on in Spanish) is Iraqi-Canadian. His young granddaughters, he said, are “Texan-Mexican-Canadian-Iraqi Americans.”
A boy asked Bush about his favorite food — these were students, after all — and he said “Mexican,” endorsing a new restaurant, El Wapo Taco in Coral Gables, as “authentic.” He later posed for selfies.
Once he was mobbed by reporters, Bush showed flashes of the politician Florida veterans remember from his days in Tallahassee. He pushed back at a reporter’s question of his use of the term “anchor babies” — “C’mon,” he said — and refused to hit Chris Christie over Christie’s remark that foreign visitors in the United States might be tracked like FedEx packages so they don’t overstay their visas.
“It came out wrong,” Bush said of Christie’s phrasing, perhaps recalling his own verbal gaffes.
Bush also declared himself unworried about internal tumult inside his campaign, which has reined in spending and cut ties with three fundraising consultants in the past week as it has become clear that the path to the Republican nomination will be rockier than Bush’s team had planned.
“I had a great fundraiser last night,” Bush said, referring to a reception at the Coral Gables home of auto executive Manny Kadre. “I did seven fundraisers last week. I promise you that when you look at the results on September 30th, that we will be fine.”