Donald Trump’s name didn’t come up much at Thursday’s town hall with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, but the former Florida governor tried hard to draw a constrast with the GOP frontrunner nonetheless.
Bush emphasized his leadership experience as he spoke to a crowd of a few hundred at the Magnolia Room in Rock Hill just two days before South Carolina Republicans head to the polls to pick their party’s eventual nominee. He talked about his eight years as Florida’s chief executive, and the “front row seat to history” he had in the first two Bush administrations.
In a campaign that has often been light on substance or details, Bush at one point waved a stack of his position papers around to demonstrate his ideas’ physical and literal weight.
“I don’t believe in having secret plans,” Bush said.
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Bush is struggling to make up ground in South Carolina. The son of one former president and brother of another, Bush was a one-time frontrunner before the presidential race was overtaken by Trump’s outsized personality. Trump holds a double-digit lead heading into Saturday’s primary.
Is the problem in Washington, D.C., that we don’t insult each other enough?
As he frequently clashed with Trump during Republican debates, Bush slipped further into the background. He finished sixth in the Iowa caucuses, behind libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who then dropped out. But Bush finished in fourth place in New Hampshire, narrowly ahead of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The Bush campaign hopes to finish strong in South Carolina, with its large population of military voters and national-security conservatives. If he does, Bush could surpass Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich as the main contender to Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, candidates political watchers have labeled too divisive to win a general election.
On Thursday, Bush touted his standing as the strongest candidate to compete with the Democrats in the fall. He told voters he has a plan “not to contain, but to destroy ISIS,” using his father’s coalition-building leading into Operation Desert Storm as a model.
He promised to reverse the sequestration cuts to the military – something he said Trump and Cruz weren’t committed to – and introduce a “choice card” for veterans who want to opt out of the VA health care system. He said he wanted to emphasize “economic security and national security,” to create a society where “everybody reaches their full potential,” and do so by setting a different leadership style and tone.
“Is the problem in Washington, D.C., that we don’t insult each other enough?” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Graham, who endorsed Bush after dropping his own bid for the White House, listed Bush’s advantages over the other GOP candidates. Cruz can’t “play well with others.” Rubio, at 44, “is just not ready.” Kasich “expanded Obamacare” in Ohio.
Bush, by contrast, “worked in Florida with more Democrats than Republicans,” Graham said. “He won 60 percent of the Hispanic vote. If we can do that (in November), we win going away.”
Michael Moore, MoveOn.org and Donald Trump – they believe the same things.
Trump, when he was mentioned, was compared by the candidate to a “conspiracy theorist” for his remarks blaming the 9/11 terrorist attacks on George W. Bush – a charge that mixes the political with the personal for the younger Bush brother.
“Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, and Donald Trump – they believe the same things,” Bush said. “Nobody serious in the Democratic Party talks like that.”
Graham also stuck up for the former Bush administration, and Trump’s charge that George W. Bush “lied” about the case for war with Iraq.
“I know President Bush. I’ve been in his presence in the Oval Office,” the senator said. “To suggest he lied to the American people about the Iraq War puts you in kook land.”
Conservatives, Bush said, “don't win by insulting women, insulting Hispanics, insulting the disabled, insulting POWs.”
He’s a liberal in conservative’s clothes. He could have been a set up by the Clintons.
Voter John Sindell, on Donald Trump
Voter John Sindell of Rock Hill appreciated the contrast with the frontrunner, saying that unlike Trump, Bush was able to offer details.
“I’m anybody but Trump,” Sindell said. “I don’t believe Trump is a conservative. He’s a liberal in conservative’s clothes. I think he could have been a set up by the Clintons, he’s done so well.”
But “The Donald’s” presence is still felt. Given Trump’s lead, Bush told the Herald after the event his eyes are on finishing second in South Carolina.
“I’m surprised that the issues don’t get discussed as much as they should,” he said. “But our crowds are enthusiastic, we’re picking up support, and according to the polls I’ve seen, we’re in a dead heat for second place.”
Given how much he’s put into this campaign, does Bush get frustrated that he hasn’t gotten as much of a chance as he would have liked to highlight his stack full of plans in the national spotlight?
“I don’t get frustrated,” he said. “I get more determined.”