Saturday, May 26, 2018
Politics

Bush team tries to reassure concerned donors

New York Times

MIAMI — Jeb Bush's backers have watched as Bush debuted his White House bid amid chatter of inevitability, then plummeted in the polls. They have seen him bungle a debate performance, losing a pivotal exchange to his one-time protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio. And they have observed as Bush, in small towns and big cities, has proved a much less gifted campaigner than they ever anticipated.

So on Saturday, as many of the Bush faithful descended on the Biltmore Hotel near Miami to hear from Bush and his team, his aides tried to put their most optimistic spin on a campaign that, so far, has failed to meet — let alone exceed — its early expectations.

The final quarterly gathering of donors this year came on the same weekend as Art Basel, and in a nod to Miami's glittering art festival, Bush's donor event featured a reception at the studio of Romero Britto, an artist whose brightly colored paintings and sculptures are beloved by the city. (In a street art flourish, a video attached to an invitation showed a tattooed graffiti artist spray-painting "All In For Jeb" in bubbly letters on the side of a Dumpster.)

The three-hour donor meeting included a question-and-answer session with Danny Diaz, the campaign manager, and Sally Bradshaw, a senior adviser, and presentations from Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, and Brett Doster, the campaign's South Carolina director.

The campaign also presented new internal polling data from New Hampshire. The data found that terrorism and national security are the top issues there and that, according to an aide, "There are half a dozen people within the margin of error competing for second place in New Hampshire, and Governor Bush is very strongly positioned with the best ground game in the state."

The general Bush pitch hinges on restoring a traditional framework to an election in which — so far, at least — the traditional rules of politics have ceased to apply, and where unconventional outsiders like Donald Trump, a real estate mogul turned reality TV host turned politician, have ridden a frenzy of visceral voter anger to the top of the polls.

Bush supporters argue that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire decide late and that, historically, voters ultimately settle on someone more like Bush, a moderate candidate with a proven record. Bush, they add, has both the money (his super PAC has raised more than $100 million) and the organization to stay in the race until the field becomes less crowded, at which point they hope Bush will fare better.

"If you go back to the Howard Dean days or the Gary Hart days or the Ted Kennedy days, and in our party you can do the same, the only conclusion you can reach is that those at the top of the heap polling-wise are never at the top of the heap when the real races begin," Al Cardenas, a Bush adviser and friend who did not attend the event, said by phone.

Nonetheless, despite the publicly optimistic outlook, the private mood among many donors and aides is grim. One, asked recently to name which three candidates will ultimately fight for the Republican nomination, did not even mention Bush.

There have been concerns that the Bush team made a strategic mistake when it moved Mike Murphy — a Republican image-maker and close confidant of Bush — to the super PAC side, to run what was originally billed as a shadow campaign. Now, because of rules restricting coordination between campaigns and super PACs, Murphy, who is known as the candidate whisperer, is unable to whisper to his own candidate, who could very much use the help right now.

Saturday's gathering was less of a production than previous donor confabs, including one in Houston in October, which featured President George W. Bush, and one over the summer at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the family has a house. Many ardent Bush supporters did not make the journey, for reasons including business trips, the holiday season and family commitments.

Right to Rise, a super PAC supporting Bush, did not fly in its team to put on an official presentation. But last week, at a breakfast in Washington, D.C., Murphy did brief donors on plans for a 15-minute documentary, which will run online and on the New England Sports Network and which the group hopes will introduce voters to "Jeb's story."

According to someone briefed on the group's thinking and speaking anonymously to reveal candid discussions, Right to Rise is also debating whether to explicitly attack Rubio, Bush's former mentee and fellow Floridian, who is competing with him for donor support and will likely prove a formidable obstacle in the Florida primary.

At the Romero Britto event, trendy young professionals clad in Miami chic — more Art Basel than staid political event — filed into a black warehouse covered in neon graffiti, where Britto unveiled a painting he had made supporting the campaign.

The crowd was dynamic, with the very sort of energy Bush needs to harness. But just across the street, seeming to keep a watchful eye, was yet another reminder of the challenges Bush still faces — a pop-art mural rendering of Trump, crossed with Ronald McDonald.

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