Columbia, S.C. — Bob Dole likes South Carolina. “It was South Carolina that put me over the top in 1996,” he recalls in a lengthy phone interview.
But, 20 years later, Jeb Bush, his chosen candidate in the 2016 race, is on the verge of a disappointing and potentially lethal finish.
“I’m not seeing a lot of movement there,” Dole says. “He’s got Lindsey down there helping him, and his brother came in to help him, and he’s still at about what, 10 percent? Which is way behind top three.”
Dole’s remarks are an indication that even Bush’s strongest supporters are beginning to give up hope. The former Florida governor got a lease on life after he managed to outperform Rubio with a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he will deliver again in South Carolina. The state’s popular governor, Nikki Haley, threw her support behind Marco Rubio on Wednesday; Bush had lobbied hard for her support, and he was visibly agitated when he was asked about the development on the campaign trail, as voters offered their unvarnished pointers about how he might improve as a candidate.
While Rubio is battling Texas senator Ted Cruz for second place in most polls, Bush remains a distant fourth in a state that has been historically friendly to his family, and in which he has spent tens of millions of dollars to boost his flagging candidacy. It’s apparent that Dole, the former Kansas senator and Republican presidential nominee who has made himself a presence in this race with his vocal denunciations of Cruz, is beginning to look to other candidates.
“If it’s not Jeb, I hope it’s Rubio,” he tells me. It’s a sign that the GOP establishment may be starting to acknowledge its options are narrowing, and beginning the process of coalescing behind a candidate. In the context of the increasingly vicious fight for second place unfolding between Rubio and Cruz, Dole says he hopes Rubio prevails. Last month, Dole made waves when he said that he would prefer Donald Trump to Cruz as the Republican nominee.
“I hope Rubio finishes second,” he says. “We have to have a nominee, Republicans, who can bring the party together and reach out to moderates and independents and not just the far right-wing. I don’t know whether Trump could bring the party together,” he says. “I’ve never met him, but he’s probably a good person. I never meet rich people…” He trails off.
Surely he met many of them when he was campaigning for president, I tell him. “I met as many as I could, asked ‘em for money,” he says, but “today, spending is outrageous.” He’s a champion of campaign-finance reform. “Whoever’s elected — well, except Hillary — we gotta have campaign reform and stop some of these Super PACs.”
Isn’t Jeb, whose Super PAC has raised, and is in the process of spending, over $100 million, particularly guilty of perverting the campaign process, in Dole’s eyes? The money, he says, “hasn’t helped much.” So then, why the need for reform? “There’s just too much money in all the campaigns,” he says.
He points the finger at Cruz, who has raised more money than every other Republican candidate save Bush, and for whom Dole reserves particular scorn. “Nobody’s checked to see where his money’s coming from. It’s probably big oil.”
“Not one Republican,” he continues, “even though he’s doing pretty well in the polls, has raised his hand to support him, and to me that speaks volumes. I don’t think we need that kind of person.”