Still struggling to rebound, Jeb Bush cancels ad buys in Iowa and South Carolina

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches event on Monday at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach. [Associated Press]
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches event on Monday at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach. [Associated Press]
Published December 31 2015
Updated December 31 2015

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush is canceling reserved advertising time in Iowa and South Carolina, the latest reminder of his struggles to connect with voters — and a sign of possible fundraising troubles.

Instead, Bush plans to redeploy roughly 50 staffers to the first four states holding contests next year — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Some will be leaving desk jobs at campaign headquarters in Miami while others already working in states like Virginia and Illinois to collect signatures to appear on the primary ballot will move on to a new field assignment.

Staffing in New Hampshire — the state most critical to Bush's early chances — will double to 40. Senior aides and top campaign bundlers said that Bush's total staff in the Granite State will dwarf the combined staffs of Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — Bush's primary rivals for votes in the state.

In Iowa, the Bush team will grow to about 20, aides said. Staffing in South Carolina and Nevada will climb to about 10.

The campaign acknowledged that their announcement came on Wednesday because it was the final day before payment was due for the January air time. But the first hint of impending reassignments appeared in an email sent to staffers just before Christmas. When you go home for the holidays, the message said, make sure to pack gloves and warm clothes.

News of the decision was first reported by the Des Moines Register.

The moves will keep Bush from making paying for roughly $3 million of reserved TV time in January — a little more than $1 million in Iowa just under $2 million in South Carolina.

The decision to divert the money — whether Bush even has it is unknown — comes at the end of a fundraising quarter when Bush was devoting less time to raising money and more time on the campaign trail in hopes of boosting his sagging poll numbers. He joined a call with his top campaign "bundlers" on Wednesday afternoon and thanked them for another successful fundraising period, while his top aides told the call that they've scheduled another big-dollar fundraiser for Jan. 18 in New York.

The quarter ends on Thursday and aides declined to say how much Bush raised in the final three months of the year, although one aide described the haul as "competitive" with other top-tier challengers.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is leading polls in Iowa, announced that he had raised about $20 million for the quarter.

A series of emails to supporters this week from Bush's brother, former president George W. Bush, and the candidate's son, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, delivered last-minute requests for donations as low as $1. Bush has struggled to raise money from smaller donors despite raising millions from well-heeled supporters easily able to give the $2,700 maximum.

As he scaled back on television, Bush will rely on Right to Rise USA, the super PAC he launched before starting his campaign. The entity raised more than $100 million this year and plans to spend tens of millions of dollars in the early states in the coming weeks, a spokesman said Wednesday.

"Right to Rise USA has more than $3.6M reserved in IA between now and Caucus Day," the super PAC's spokesman Paul Lindsey tweeted Wednesday afternoon. "Will add more in the coming days."

Bush was campaigning Wednesday in South Carolina, a state where his campaign believes he could grab more momentum now that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-South Carolina, has dropped out of the race. More than a dozen of the senator's most prominent supporters and donors are now backing Bush, though he is currently polling in the low single digits in the Palmetto State.

The Bush camp also said it plans to increase its advertising on conservative talk radio stations in South Carolina, a cheaper, lower-profile and less effective way to reach GOP base voters.

The moves, announced during the holiday week, will be greeted by the rest of the GOP field as yet another desperate attempt to revive Bush's campaign, which began the year in a commanding financial and polling position but has gradually sputtered ever since. In October, Bush slashed his campaign payroll, laid off some staffers and redeployed dozens across the country to work on voter outreach and ballot access. Bush and his team conceded at the time that changes were being made because of the rise of front-runner Donald Trump and in hopes of avoiding the sudden financial collapse like the one that ended Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's presidential campaign.

Over the summer, as Bush formally launched his campaign and the size of the Right to Rise financial war chest was revealed, many supporters and outside observers speculated that ultimately the PAC would devote most of its resources to advertising while the campaign focused on candidate travel and voter outreach. Both camps, who by law are barred from coordinating, strongly disputed that would happen.

Wednesday's news signals, however, that Bush decided he has no choice now but to do just that.

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