Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush finally loosens up but is it too late?
CARROLL, Iowa -- Maybe it was the cold meds for his nagging cough. Or the year of rocky practice on the presidential campaign trail. Or the low expectations of where he'll finish in Monday's Iowa caucuses.
Whatever the reason, in the final days leading to the first Republican vote, Jeb Bush at long last seemed liberated. He was the candidate who might have been, sans Donald Trump. The governor Floridians knew. A man comfortable with being a Bush.
During Thursday night's Trump-less debate in Des Moines, Bush embraced his family's political dynasty, and did so almost with gusto.
"Look," Bush said in response to a question about the GOP's mainstream-vs.-outsider divide. "I am in the establishment because my dad, the greatest man alive, was president of the United States, and my brother, who I adore as well, as a fantastic brother, was president. Fine, I'll take it. I guess I'm part of the establishment. Barbara Bush is my mom. I'll take that, too. But this election is not about our pedigree; this is an election about people that are really hurting. We need a leader that will fix things and has a proven record to do it."
His answer would have been nearly unthinkable eight months ago, when Bush, not yet a presidential candidate, stumbled over and over again when asked about his brother's Iraq War and his family's dynastic legacy. Bush's inability to deal with The Bush Question, his candidacy's most evident obstacle, was an early warning sign to some Republican donors and strategists he might be in trouble.
Bush's grinding campaign has served as public talk-therapy session. He jokingly admits as much in his town halls, and a sort of psychological breakthrough had happened by Friday after the debate.
"I'm Jeb, exclamation point -- proud to be a Bush," Bush said in Carroll, about 90 minutes northwest of Des Moines, after a man asked him to compare himself with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and his brother, former President George W. Bush.
"In Iowa, we know the Bushes well," the voter had said. "Many of us voted for them."
That prompted a long reflection from Jeb Bush, who called his father "near perfect" and his "hero."
"I mean, I'm going to get emotional about this," he warned.
In his 20s, Bush said, he decided not to emulate his father's life, but "just be, like, half of him."
"It was a perfect decision on my part, because that lower expectation allowed me to live my own life, and my life is different," he said. "I've lived a very different life than my brother, and my life experiences -- I'm not saying they're better or worse -- they're different. And we're different because of that."
"He's more disciplined, more focused," Bush continued. "I'm probably a little more cerebral, which I'm trying to, you know, work on. We've got a little therapy on that --" He was interrupted by laughter. "I don't want to be overly wonkish here."
A second voter told him: "Most of us are pretty cool with another Bush in the White House."
Bush kept bringing up his family, unprompted. Asked about Washington gridlock, he blamed politicians "pushing someone down to make yourself look better" and invoked his mother, the disciplinarian.
"Back to the Bush family, Barbara Bush, when she saw a kid in our family acting like that. You know what happened?" he said. "Back then, they didn't have a 1-800 hotline for child abuse. We've got to get back to grown-up world here."
"He has a sense of humor," marveled 66-year-old Sharon Calder, an independent voter from Carroll, who said she still didn't know which candidate she'd caucus for, or whether her pick would even be a Republican. (Iowa voters are famous for making up their minds at the last minute.)
Bush has heaped praise on his family from the start. It was often defensive or awkward, like when he talked about being born lucky in Midland, Texas, when "my little eyes opened up, and there was Barbara Bush." She had notably said in 2013: "We've had too many Bushes" in the White House.
Barbara Bush, 90, has since become one of her son's biggest cheerleaders. She recently recorded a video for his campaign, saying that "his heart is big."
The clip drew contempt from Trump, who taunted Bush on Twitter for relying on his "mommy."
The Bush matriarch intends to campaign for her son next week in New Hampshire. George W. Bush will probably make an appearance for his younger brother ahead of the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary, Jeb Bush told Bloomberg Politics on Wednesday. On Friday, his campaign mailed Iowa Republicans a flier displaying a letter from George W. Bush, urging voters to caucus for Jeb.
Bush has claimed for some time that being toppled from the top of the GOP field by Trump freed him from political pressure. He's perfectly content as the underdog, Bush insists. What was different about watching him Thursday and Friday was he no longer had to say it. He showed it.
"He's feeling really comfortable with the way things have worked out," said his son Jeb Bush Jr., who traveled from Miami for the frenzied campaign push in Iowa and, come next week, New Hampshire. "He's probably the hardest-working candidate."
Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle, also made the trip, from Orlando. Her past prescription-drug addiction has become a fixture in Bush's stump speech in New Hampshire, a state hit hard by a heroin epidemic. The man who as governor chided reporters for even asking about his daughter now beams at her standing in the back of the room when he mentions her name and her recovery.
"I love you, baby," Bush said late Friday at a campaign event in Sioux Center in Iowa's northwest corner.
Earlier in Sioux City, near the South Dakota border, Bush introduced his children; boasted that his wife, Columba, was campaigning on her own -- quietly -- elsewhere in Iowa, and announced that their four grandchildren will take part in a campaign bus tour sometime in February.
"This is a family deal," Bush said, "especially when you get to the beginning of the end."