Jeb Bush rallies South Florida loyalists, ahead of New Hampshire push

He contrasts himself with the GOP front-runner, calling him a "bully" at a Hialeah rally.
Published December 28 2015
Updated December 29 2015

Jeb Bush campaigned in two back yards Monday — his own and Donald Trump's — to ask longtime Bush believers to keep the faith in his presidential candidacy.

At a Hialeah rally and a West Palm Beach speech, the former Florida governor made no reference to his stagnant poll numbers, which have him trailing several rivals even in his home state.

But he contrasted himself, repeatedly and unprompted, with Trump, who lives part time in a Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago.

"Donald: I will take you on one-one in a debate — any time, any place," Bush boasted before about 900 people at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches after a moderator asked Bush what he'd tell the Republican front-runner and real estate tycoon.

Earlier, at the breakfast rally held at Chico's Cuban restaurant, Bush knocked Trump for taking advice from Saturday and Sunday morning TV shows "in his pajamas."

"I'm the only candidate that has gone after him, because everybody else seems to be intimidated by the bully. I'm not," Bush told reporters. "This is not a serious person, and he's not going to be president, but he makes it harder for the likely nominee to be able to beat Hillary Clinton."

Trump's name had drawn jeers from the largely Hispanic Hialeah crowd.

State Rep. Jose Oliva of Hialeah, a likely future Florida House speaker and one of the local Republicans to take the microphone before Bush's arrival, said conservatives shouldn't pick presidential candidates "who look to exploit our anxieties" or "who don't have the experience for the presidency but let their ambitions overtake them."

No one mentioned Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the other Miami contender faring better than Bush in the polls. Only in response to a question from the audience in West Palm Beach about immigration did Bush make a veiled attack on Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

"I haven't changed my views," Bush said, though "candidates seem to go into the witness protection program about this issue." Rubio backed comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 and now calls for a piecemeal approach; Cruz fought the 2013 bill but didn't clarify until recently that he doesn't support legalization. He no longer supports expanding H1-B visas.

Asked about the Obama administration's plan to step up deportations beginning in January, Bush blamed the president for failing to work with Congress on immigration legislation. He also opined that Cuban migrants stranded at the Costa Rican border on their way to the United States shouldn't be granted "free entry." And he chided President Barack Obama for not offering "stronger" support for the political opposition that recently won congressional elections in Venezuela.

Those issues matter in South Florida. But before Bush can run on them ahead of Florida's March 15 election he will have to survive New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary on Feb. 9 and could cripple any losing GOP establishment candidacies.

"I'm very optimistic about New Hampshire," Bush insisted to reporters in Spanish. "It's already my second home."

When another Spanish-language journalist asked Bush if he might drop out of the race — not even making it to Florida — Bush laughed and said, "No."

"That's a joke for the new year," he added.

Any hope Bush has in the state he led for eight years would have to build on the kind of loyal support he encountered in Hialeah — support from people like Luis Castaño, Chico's cook and co-owner.

Castaño walked out of the kitchen's swinging doors and wiped his greasy hands before saying hello to Bush, the same man he had greeted at the restaurant nearly 18 years ago. His business partner, Jesus Ovidez, held a framed picture of himself and the politician from when Bush was running for governor in 1998.

"Es como uno de la familia," said Castaño, 66. He's like one of the family.