The most important day in Jeb Bush's presidential campaign is Feb. 9.
That's when New Hampshire residents vote and Bush's precarious campaign finally fizzles out or when he resurfaces as a leading candidate after months of teetering on the brink of irrelevance.
Even more than Iowa's caucuses in just over a week, the Granite State primary should provide clarity to a contest that has defied prediction and long-held assumptions about presidential politics.
"It's the first real inflection point," said Al Cardenas, a top Republican fundraiser and Bush supporter from Miami. "For some people, it's the definitive last stand. For some people it may be a course alteration."
For others, out of money and momentum, it's sure to be the end.
Anything but a strong showing for Bush will vastly increase calls for him to quit. He already faces pressure to bow out rather than attack fellow mainstream conservatives seen as stronger candidates than he has proven to be.
But Bush is in a unique position.
After strengthening his standing in the earliest voting states, he has a more credible path to the nomination than he has had for months.
At the same time, Bush is poised to inflict lasting damage on the establishment wing of the Republican Party and help deliver the nomination to Donald Trump. The former governor's allies already have spent $20 million on TV ads attacking onetime protege Marco Rubio, who sits in third place in most polls.
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The fiercest battle within the Republican primary is the fight to emerge as the chief mainstream conservative alternative to Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
New Hampshire is ground zero for the competition among Bush, Rubio, and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio.
Feb. 9 is not so much about winning. Trump leads most recent polls by some 20 points and appears likely to win New Hampshire, so the goal is second place.
Christie and Kasich have virtually parked themselves in New Hampshire, and neither can afford a poor showing.
Bush, whose well-funded super PAC is spending millions on ads tearing down Rubio, Christie and Kasich, has the resources to survive a weak showing in New Hampshire, and his supporters doubt he would quit before the Feb. 20 primary in South Carolina.
He has built a campaign infrastructure in the Palmetto State and has the political network of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham behind him. Plus, the Bush family has a strong track record in the South Carolina. George W. Bush is expected to campaign with his brother there.
Meanwhile, Bush continues to outspend the rest of the field on TV, pushes detailed policy proposals and touts stronger early state get-out-the-vote programs than most of his rivals. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire last week received mini-video players in the mail pre-loaded with a 15-minute Bush documentary.
But even before the first votes are cast, some longtime admirers are calling on Bush to pull the plug for the good of the GOP.
"It is more and more amazing that Jeb Bush, a great and kind man, can still look at himself in the mirror and think he, a governor out of office since January 2007, would be better than Marco Rubio to take on Cruz, Trump, and then Clinton," radio commentator Erick Erickson wrote earlier this month on RedState.com.
The longer Bush stays in the race, with his campaign and super PAC spending millions to tear down mainstream conservative rivals, the thinking goes, the more likely he is to hand the GOP nomination to Cruz or Trump and ensure Hillary Clinton is the next president.
Republican consultant Rick Wilson, a Rubio supporter from Tallahassee, said Bush is in danger of damaging the legacy of goodwill built by his father and brother among Republicans.
"When does the campaign that is obviously not moving forward and the only thing it can do is destroy Marco Rubio, when does that campaign finally tip over and destroy that legacy?" Wilson said. "He would get out tomorrow if he was getting advice looking beyond the horizon of this campaign. He would say, 'In order to nominate somebody who isn't going to lead us to electoral disaster, I believe it's time to leave this race.' "
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The argument that Bush is doomed made more sense a month ago. In fact, national and early state polls suggest Bush has gained ground slightly in recent weeks, while Rubio in New Hampshire has slightly lost ground.
"The narrative from a few months ago that Jeb Bush is No. 6 or No. 7 is over. He's now in the top three of the pack," said Cardenas, suggesting Rubio has already missed his opportunity. "Rubio's moment in my opinion was at that point with Ben Carson's demise, when people were either going to go to Rubio or to Cruz. More people went to Cruz."
The growing optimism among Bush loyalists in Florida is common, even as they acknowledge the clock is fast ticking down and patience for settling on a leading establishment candidate is finite.
"At some point before March 1 there will be enormous support for getting the field down to two and possibly three candidates, and once it's down to a two- or three-person race, it's a whole new ballgame," said Justin Sayfie, a Fort Lauderdale lobbyist and Bush supporter convinced Bush is well positioned to be the chief mainstream Republican candidate. "Jeb Bush in my view has at least as good a chance to be the alternative to Trump as Cruz does or Rubio does, and (in modern history) the mainstream Republican has always gone on to win the nomination after fending off challenges from insurgent candidates."
Longtime party fundraisers still have a hard time fathoming Trump winning the nomination.
"By South Carolina, my gut feeling is most of these guys will be gone," said Zach Zacharia, a Broward County doctor who has raised millions of dollars for Bush family presidential campaigns. "I still feel comfortable that Jeb Bush eventually will win the nomination. At the end of the day, you have to focus on who can beat Hillary — not on someone who can make others look stupid or call them names."
One plausible pathway for Bush:
Feb. 1: Cruz bests Trump in Iowa's caucuses, slowing Trump's momentum.
Feb. 9: Bush finishes second in New Hampshire, ahead of Rubio.
Feb. 20: New Hampshire momentum helps Bush win South Carolina (a state that usually embraces the establishment candidate), or at least comes close.
March 1: A dozen mostly southern states vote. Trump and Cruz dominate, but because these states award their delegates proportionally, no candidate may pull ahead significantly.
March 15: Here's where America's biggest battleground states — Florida and Ohio — could be crucial as the field is narrowed to two or three main candidates. They are winner-take-all states with 166 delegates at stake and, theoretically at least, would be more receptive to establishment candidates than Deep South candidates. If Bush won both (and polls show Trump way ahead in Florida at this point), he would take the lead.
April onward: The calendar then becomes dominated by so-called blue states — New York, Pennsylvania, California — that also could be expected to support the more moderate Republican.
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This scenario is not likely, of course, just plausible. Momentum is crucial, and that has to come in New Hampshire.
"Jeb Bush has got a better than fighting chance to finish second in New Hampshire," said Tampa businesswoman Kathleen Shanahan, Bush's former chief of staff who has been volunteering for the campaign in New Hampshire. "You come out of New Hampshire win place or show, and then you slide right into South Carolina and then Florida."
There is room for only one Florida Republican to take on Trump or Cruz, and Rubio supporters note that Bush has spent more than $60 million and still struggles to convince people he is viable.
"Their entire campaign has been spent moving the goal posts and redefining the definition of success," said Adam Hasner, a former state House member from Delray Beach helping lead Rubio's Florida campaign. "The Jeb I knew was disgusted by the soft bigotry of low expectations."
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithimes.