Inside local eatery the Pizza Ranch, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was in the process of selling himself to a roomful of Iowa voters when a man asked Bush what his biggest mistake had been as governor of Florida and how he would change it.
Seated in the back row, Dorene Oliver muttered audibly, “Not changing your last name.”
“That’s not a mistake,” Bush shot back. “I’m proud of my family.”
“I can understand you being proud of your dad,” Oliver chimed in. “I’m very proud of my dad.”
The exchange was an emblem of a deeply-rooted problem that the Bush campaign always knew it would face: The legacy of Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, who left office with a 34 percent approval rating and the specter of a political dynasty.
In distinguishing himself, Bush initially pushed back on the notion that he’d be more of the same.
“I’m my own man,” he often proudly declares on the trail, all while standing under his campaign banner, which conspicuously lacks his last name.
“Before, the people of Iowa only knew him by a last name,” said David Oman, a longtime GOP operative and senior adviser. “They just need to get to know him as his own man.”
On his three-day trip to Iowa this week (the most time he’s spent there), he sought to re-introduce himself to voters. His first event, on Tuesday, speaking to the Scott CountyRepublican Party, included a broad message that touted his record and was scant on policy details — something that goes back to his “Taking on Mount Washington” speech from July in which he promised to “disrupt Washington”, casting himself as a Washington outsider, not a part of the establishment.
Yet, in the events that followed, as he courted voters and talked policy, he could not escape the shadow of his famous family.
In Muscatine, as with several other stops, a voter asked how his father was doing.
“Strong as a goat,” Bush replied, to laughter.
But some questions aren’t so friendly. He’s been asked about his brother’s proclivity for spending, one voter in New Hampshire once asking Bush to assure him that he wouldn’t be more of the same.
It is a real concern, especially in Iowa, the first state in the nation to hold a caucus. In a Bloomberg Politics focus group, conducted in Iowa and New Hampshire, some voters described Bush as “over-rated,” “typical politician,” “way out of touch” and as having “a lot of baggage.”
And while participants said they were impressed by his Florida record, many did not see that as being reason enough to put him in the Oval Office, a crushing blow to the Bush campaign, the crux of which hinges on the experience and leadership they say Bush is proven to have.
But, at least one Iowa voter disagrees.
“He’s got a good record in Florida and he needs to bring that out, he needs to let people know.” Ms. Oliver said told ABC News after the event. ” “The speech he gave today was phenomenal, I thought.”
And while she says she has “the utmost respect” for George H.W. Bush, she worries that any connection to the last Republican president might taint Jeb.
“I just remember his brother being in and I thought to myself, ‘Gosh I hope we don’t get another Bush,'” she said. “But this one is just totally different.”
Now, he’s on her shortlist — tied with Ben Carson.