Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving to Jeb Bush

Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush points during a meet and greet event in Sioux City, Iowa, Monday, July 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) IANH107
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush points during a meet and greet event in Sioux City, Iowa, Monday, July 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) IANH107
Published July 24, 2015

Jeb Bush has raised more than $100 million for his presidential campaign, but the strongest 2016 weapon of late hasn't cost him a dime: Donald Trump.

For weeks, the blustery billionaire has made it next to impossible for any other Republican candidate to be noticed or emerge as a viable alternative to the former Florida governor.

Even as Bush and his allies publicly tsk tsk The Donald's inflammatory rhetoric, many of them are quietly thrilled at how helpful Trump has been, albeit unintentionally.

"When this is all said and done, it will be to Jeb's credit that he had a crazy son of a (gun) riding him in the early going, because it made him look much more sane," said Tallahassee lobbyist and former Bush political strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich. "And for the Republicans in the mid to lower tiers in this huge primary field, Trump has been a huge detriment. They have not been able to gain traction or get attention to make any kind of move."

Since mid June, when Bush and Trump both formally jumped into the race, only three candidates have gained ground in the average of national Republican polls: Bush, Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Bush's average level of support rose nearly 3 percentage points to 13.4 percent nationally, Trump's rose nearly 15 points to an average of 18.2 percent and Walker's rose 1.4 points to an average of 12 percent. Every other Republican during those seven weeks when Trump dominated the media coverage saw the numbers drop.

"The Republican field is Gov. Bush and everybody else, with some stars in that everybody else category like Sen. (Marco) Rubio and Gov. Walker," said former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, a Broward Republican. "The problem for a challenger is they need oxygen, they need the media to pay attention to them and Donald Trump is sucking up all the oxygen."

It's hard to find Republicans who think Trump, 69, has a realistic shot at winning the nomination, but the blunt-talking real estate and gaming mogul has tapped into an anti-establishment sentiment with the GOP base in a way no one else has.

"He's definitely taking control of the conversation. He's getting not only the media but other Republicans to talk about these issues that seemed a little bit third rail, like immigration," said Palm Beach County Chairman Michael Barnett. "It seems from the people I have been connecting with that conservatives love him, and grassroots admire and respect his ability to speak the truth, even if it is a little bit abrasive."

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Sarasota Republican Chairman Joe Gruters is well aware of the excitement Trump generates, having twice named him "Statesman of the Year" to headline party events. Plenty of party activists don't like the former reality TV star, Gruters said, but most everybody wants to hear what he says and many appreciate his in-your-face approach.

"Whether or not Trump is the nominee, we have to find a way to capture that energy," Gruters said.

The son and brother of presidents, Bush clearly is the establishment candidate. Trump is not pulling voters from Bush; he's pulling Republican voters fed up with familiar politicians and the status quo, many of them from the tea party wing of the party.

The more candidates in the field and the longer Trump blocks others from gaining traction, the better the outcome for Bush, 62. He has the resources to slog through even the longest primary contest.

Until Trump questioned whether Sen. John McCain is a legitimate war hero, most of the Republican field was cautious about criticizing his inflammatory remarks about illegal immigrants or other candidates. They don't want to antagonize his voters.

"Notice that Ted Cruz won't say anything bad about Trump because he thinks when Trump flames out and leaves the race that those are his voters," LeMieux said. "It's a three-dimensional chess game."

Other Republicans worry how an attention-loving billionaire might react if and when party leaders aggressively attack him.

"The concern is that he gets shunned by the Republican Party and then runs as an independent. I think that's where there's a serious concern as a Republican," Pinellas County Republican Chairman Nick DeCeglie said of Trump, who has kept the door open on a third-party run.

Other party leaders have financial considerations when it comes to Trump. The Tampa Bay Times reached out to Florida GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia and a spokesman responded by issuing a statement praising Sen. McCain for his sacrifice and services, and saying the chairman would have no comment on Trump.

Since Rick Scott's election as Florida governor in 2010, Trump has given at least $235,000 to the state GOP and Scott's political committee.

Making The Donald all the more unpredictable: Because of his massive wealth, Trump can withstand the ups and downs of a long campaign in ways previous anti-establishment favorites — think Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich — couldn't.

Trump has been more dismissive than vitriolic when it comes to Bush. Among his recent comments:

July 21 in South Carolina: "I'm not a fan of Jeb Bush. Because Jeb Bush is in favor of Common Core, and he's weak on immigration. Those are two bad things."

July 11 in Arizona: "The polls just came out, and I'm tied with Jeb Bush. And I said, oh, that's too bad, how can I be tied with this guy? He's terrible. He's terrible. He's weak on immigration. ... You know, the sanctuary cities, do you know he had five of them in Florida while he was governor? " (PolitiFact Florida rated the "sanctuary cities" claim False.)

May 21 in Sarasota: "'I like Jeb Bush. He's a nice person. But when he was asked about Iraq, he couldn't give an answer. It took him four days before he got his answer straight. ... How would you like him negotiating with the terrorists?"

Bush appears happy to be the anti-Trump of the Republican primary. He will never be a tea party, anti-establishment favorite, so he campaigns as an upbeat, optimistic presidential alternative.

"Jeb looks like the adult in the room because he is the adult in the room," said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

The Bush campaign last week released a video featuring Bush contrasting himself to Trump: "On our side there are people that prey on people's fears and their angst as well. I don't know about you, but I think it is wrong. I believe we need to unify our country," Bush says in the spot. "Whether it's Donald Trump or Barack Obama, their rhetoric of divisiveness is wrong."

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Fox News hosts the first televised GOP presidential debate Aug. 6 in Cleveland, likely to feature Trump and nine other candidates with the strongest poll numbers. Based on the past few weeks, Trump is sure to be the star of the show and pose a particular challenge for rivals who want to knock him down without antagonizing his supporters too much.

"He's going to attack other people on the stage," said LeMieux, "and if you're going to show that you can be president of the United States, you have to show you can stand up to a bully."

Stipanovich, though, said top-tier candidates could sully themselves if they tangle with Trump too aggressively.

"You wrestle with pigs," he said, "you both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

The toughest attacks on Trump have come from long-shot candidates, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham ("He's a train wreck, he's a car wreck and I think he's shown yet again why he's not going to make it through this process") and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ("Donald Trump's candidacy is a cancer on conservatism and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded").

Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard is raising money for Bush, but counts Trump among his clients. Ballard said that the pugnacious fellow who attacks and ridicules his fellow Republicans is not the personable, kind, straight-shooter he knows. Ballard thinks Trump genuinely sees Bush and most other contenders as weak candidates.

Ballard doubts Trump can succeed, "but he is definitely connecting with the frustrated tea party segment of the Republican Party, and that is the fastest growing part of the party."

Other Republicans are much less charitable.

"His whole candidacy makes me angry," said Republican consultant Alex Patton of Gainesville, who fears Trump could hand the White House over to Hillary Clinton either by turning Hispanic voters against any Republican nominee or with a third-party candidacy. Trump's Florida effect alone could do it.

"It is mathematically impossible for Republicans to win without winning Florida, which comes down to the I-4 corridor, which is home to an increasing number of Hispanic voters," Patton said. "Jeb Bush may be benefitting from Trump in the short-term, but that is outweighed by the long-term danger."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes. Contact Kirby Wilson at Follow @kirbywilson88.