Hampton, New Hampshire — Teenagers wheeled around the cafeteria of Hampton Academy, eating pizza and waiting for the main event to begin. Country music blared over the speakers. An older gentleman sat back and read the paper. Staffers worked the room and reporters hunched over their laptops. The crowds were subdued; there wasn’t a protester in sight.
It was a sizable gathering, which must’ve made Jeb Bush happy: having all but abandoned Iowa to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the former Florida governor needs to build serious momentum in this state if he’s going to remain a viable candidate after the nation’s first primary. And Bush certainly came out swinging.
Trump was essentially a second presence on the stage; Bush could hardly answer a question without taking a shot at the Republican frontrunner.
When a member of the audience asked him if Trump’s attacks had given him an opportunity to hone his candidacy, Bush responded with a resolute, “No. Donald’s disparaging me has not made me a better candidate.” He mocked Trump’s style with a slightly esoteric mock-quote: “Leadership? No, I’m just a horse. It’ll be yuuuge. It’ll be fantastic.”
An elderly woman, whose brother had been a Secret Service agent for the first President Bush, the family patriarch, scolded Jeb, saying, “Your mother probably didn’t approve of you calling Trump a jerk.” But Jeb assured her, “She probably did approve. I have first-hand knowledge of this.”
And after giving a detailed account of his tax reform plan, he quipped, “It took more than 140 characters to describe this.”
Bush repeatedly attempted to channel The Donald’s energetic, tough essence. “I hope you want someone who has a spine, who has a backbone,” he said, comparing himself to his primary opponents.
He called his tenure as governor of Florida “an activist time where reform was front and center.”
He declared that “heads would roll” in the corrupt Department of Veterans Affairs if he were president.
He urged a “populist revolt to get to a Constitutional convention” where voters could ratify an amendment installing term limits, a budget-balancing ordinance, and a six-year ban on lobbying by retired politicians.
He called on the voters of New Hampshire to “throw the bums out” of Washington and start again with a clean slate, before adding quickly, “Except Kelly Ayotte, of course.”
But the old, wonkish Jeb came through every now and again.
When someone asked him about Vladimir Putin’s alleged role in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, he admitted that he hadn’t been following the story… but that he had been reading Steven Lee Myers’s The New Tsar.
He rattled off tax rates and deficit figures and historical references with such ease and rapidity that, at times, his answers to simple questions became impossible to follow.
At one point he went overboard with the wonk as he assured supporters that his poll numbers were rising in New Hampshire because voters were only just getting to know him.
“People in California don’t know me yet. But that’s okay, because they don’t matter as much as people in New Hampshire. That’s just the way it is” — a bit too calculating, perhaps, for some voters’ tastes.