Summerville, S.C. – About 15 minutes before Jeb Bush’s town-hall–style event commenced here Wednesday afternoon, The State newspaper in Columbia broke news that could drastically reshape the South Carolina primary race: Governor Nikki Haley was endorsing Marco Rubio.
The development represents a major blow to Bush, who had aggressively pursued Haley’s support and believed it to be within reach. He told NBC on Tuesday that, “If she is going to give an endorsement it would be the most powerful, meaningful one in the state.” Bush has been lagging in recent polls here, and Haley’s backing could have provided him the type of last-minute bounce needed to finish ahead of Rubio in Saturday’s primary — or at least enough help to ward off questions about his campaign’s extinction.
It was not clear whether Bush had received the bad news before speaking here to a crowd of several hundred people at a country club. (His campaign did not comment.) But something seemed visibly amiss with Bush as the event began; a candidate who in recent weeks campaigned with a near-constant smile and a spring in his step wore a gloomy look Wednesday.
The event was rocky throughout — from Bush’s wireless microphone malfunctioning at the beginning, to multiple questioners standing at the end to tell Bush they supported him but felt he was being bullied by Trump and other opponents. Bush was not pleased to deal with either distraction; as people to the back of the outdoor pavilion here called for him to speak up, he shrugged. “I can’t do it any louder. I’ve got to keep talking.”
Brought a working microphone moments later, Bush opened by noting that Lindsey Graham has two colleagues still running for the Republican nomination, but is supporting him instead. The reason, Bush said, is that he has been tested while they have “coasted above the fray . . . focusing on their own ambitions.” When a major, unforeseen crisis occurs in the days ahead, he asked the audience, “Who do you want to sit behind the big desk?”
These remarks could be construed as attacking Ted Cruz as well as Rubio. And Bush, while comparing them both to President Obama, also made sure to highlight Trump’s inexperience. “Seven years ago this country elected Barack Obama,” Bush said, describing him as a “gifted politician,” a “great orator,” and “an outsider with no proven experience.” Obama, Bush said, “uses all of his skill to avoid responsibility. He pushes people down who disagree with him, to make himself look better — kind of like the front-running candidate for the Republican nomination.”
The crowd cheered his anti-Trump volley. But Bush’s ire on this afternoon was reserved for Rubio, a former protégé whose allegedly premature White House campaign was offensive to Bush even before the senator began accusing him of lacking foreign-policy experience. His white shirt sleeves rolled up, Bush spoke so rapidly and forcefully in refuting Rubio’s claim that his face flashed red. His remarks were delivered with an edge, and a visible irritation, that could not be ignored in the context of the afternoon’s big news.
“Marco Rubio’s my friend — we live almost in the same zip code,” Bush said. “And he’s an inspiring speaker, he’s a gifted politician, he’s a young man who has a great potential. And he said that I don’t have foreign-policy experience. Well, let’s just do a little bit of comparing and contrasting. I hope you don’t mind; that’s not negative campaigning, that’s called politics. When you campaign you’ve got to toot your own horn and you’ve got to point out differences between the candidates, and I’ll do this respectfully.”
Bush proceeded to highlight three accomplishments Rubio has claimed in the Senate: a bipartisan bill dealing with “young women overseas,” which Bush called “small but important” despite offering few details; a provision dealing with the Obamacare risk corridor, which Bush says Rubio wrongly took credit for; and a bill to double the sanctions on Hezbollah, which, Bush pointed out, passed on a unanimous voice-vote that Rubio missed.
“Those are the three things that he says he’s done. He says he has foreign-policy experience because he goes to committee hearings,” Bush said, shaking his head. “Well, that’s fine, okay. I think he could serve better than Barack Obama, I got that.”
Bush then pivoted to what he called “The Jeb record” — his tenure leading the Florida National Guard, and foreign trips he took in the capacity, including to Iraq; his time spent living overseas; business he conducted in other countries; and the 89 international trips he took as governor.
Bush concluded, his tone dripping with condescension and resentment: “It’s hard for me to be lectured to by a gifted young guy who thinks that going to a committee hearing means that you know something about the world.”
Bush eventually pivoted away from Rubio to focus on other issues, and to field questions from the audience. And his smile returned, albeit infrequently, as the event wore on. But the tone had been set, and the audience seemed to notice. This was not the joyful, optimistic Jeb Bush who had been promised at the campaign’s dawn, the one who had finally broken through in the week leading up to the New Hampshire primary. In his place was a candidate vexed and frustrated — if not by the day’s developments, then by those shaping the overall arc of his campaign.
Near the end of the event, two men stood to ask questions. The first said he thought Bush was “best qualified” to become president, but was concerned that the governor looks “shaken up by the bullying” from his rivals. “I don’t feel like I’m shaken up by the bullying,” Bush interrupted him, looking irritated.
Not ten minutes later, another man stood. He said he agreed with the first man, and urged Bush to emphasize his policy positions rather than be sucked into spats with opponents. “I do!” Bush interrupted once more, and with another flash of irritation. “This is called campaigning.”