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  1. Florida Politics

Adam C. Smith: Jeb Bush has a conservative problem

Jeb Bush looks like a strong and energetic candidate eager to mix it up with voters and reporters, but he still has a big Matt Drudge problem.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

Jeb Bush has a serious Matt Drudge problem, and that points to a more fundamental electoral problem.

Among the most prominent drudgereport.com headlines Thursday evening: POLL: 54% WANT FRESH FACES IN '16....NH voters pan Bush...Jeb Still Refuses to Rule Out Tax Hikes...

The prior Friday, during his New Hampshire debut as a likely 2016 presidential candidate, much of the mainstream media was gushing over Bush's substance, his accessibility and his refusal to pander to the right on issues like immigration reform. But Drudge offered these headlines: RUBIO ON RISE ... JEB STRUGGLES FROM WITHIN ... Says his view on immigration is 'grown-up plan' ... WALKER: 'WE NEED NAME FROM FUTURE, NOT PAST'...

Drudge, a Miami resident and registered independent voter, does not pick the Republican nominee, of course, although he was consistently kind to Mitt Romney in 2012. However, his immensely popular website helps shape the conversation among Republican activists and reporters covering the race.

Combined with the nearly universal skepticism or outright hostility to Bush from other Republican-leaning media outlets from the Weekly Standard to Rush Limbaugh and Hotair.com, Drudge's Bush treatment underscores a significant obstacle to the former Florida governor with the potential to grow even bigger.

"As long as the field stays very divided against him, he will be able to overcome it as (John) McCain did in 2008 and Romney in 2012. If, however, the field shrinks, then it becomes a problem because the criticism gets more easily amplified," said Erick Erickson, the influential editor of RedState.com, one of the few conservative outlets that has given Bush relatively balanced coverage.

Romney had plenty of critics on the right and in the conservative media, but not nearly as many as Bush does today.

Given his huge advantages in fundraising and GOP establishment support, Bush should be the runaway Republican frontrunner. He's not.

The antagonism from GOP-friendly media outlets reflects the deep resistance to Bush from the Republican base that stands to make this the most volatile primary in decades. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released Monday found only 49 percent of Republican voters said they could vote for Bush for president, while 34 percent had an unfavorable impression of him and only 23 percent viewed him favorably.

Watching Bush and other Republican contenders campaign in New Hampshire last weekend, I came away with four main takeaways:

• Bush is working extremely hard at this and seems surprisingly ready to submit himself to the indignities and periodic humiliations of a modern presidential campaign. He looks, contrary to many predictions, like a strong and energetic candidate eager to mix it up with voters and reporters.

• Fatigue with the Bush name is far greater than I realized among rank-and-file Republicans.

• So is antagonism to the Common Core educational standards.

• It has been nearly 10 years since Bush was a self-described "head-banging conservative" governor, and to many voters and conservative opinion leaders it feels much longer than that.

"Jeb Bush may have been a conservative governor but he seems to have positioned himself to be more of a centrist since then, and that's not what I'm looking for," former New Hampshire state Sen. Fenton Groen of Rochester said at a house party in Dover.

Nobody likes a scold, and people in recent years were more likely to see Bush on TV suggesting Ronald Reagan would have a tough time winning over Republicans today, rather than promoting the conservative cause.

Or lamenting how leaders in his party have been unwilling to compromise with Democrats. Or suggesting that "grown-up" Republicans understand that undocumented immigrants need a way to obtain legal status.

"That's not a starting point for dialogue with conservative voters. That's more like a middle finger," said Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of the Daily Caller. "You couldn't pick two more resonant issues for Republican primary voters than immigration and Common Core. ... Jeb says to them, 'Not only do I not agree with you, I don't agree with you at all — and I don't really respect your views on it.' "

The vast majority of the GOP establishment's donor class is fully on board with Bush's immigration reform and education agenda — and they are remarkably disconnected from much of the conservative media and activist base. But for those important constituencies, the establishment wing of the party is the biggest problem with the GOP, and why the likes of Bob Dole, McCain and Romney wound up nominated for president and losing.

Even Bush's top political advisers, Sally Bradshaw in Tallahassee and Mike Murphy in California, are widely perceived among movement conservative leaders as suspicious of large pieces of the grass-roots.

"We repel Latinos, the fastest-growing voter group in the country, with our nativist opposition to immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship. We repel younger voters, who are much more secular than their parents, with our opposition to same-sex marriage and our scolding tone on social issues. And we have lost much of our once solid connection to the middle class on kitchen-table economic issues," Murphy wrote in Time magazine after President Barack Obama's 2012 victory.

Bradshaw helped author a postelection autopsy for the Republican National Committee that reached the same conclusions and infuriated many party activists.

"I used to like Jeb Bush, but now he seems to be more of a waffler. The amnesty issue is a big issue for me, and so is Common Core," Bill Burpeau, a banker from Londonderry, N.H., told me last week.

Donald and Elizabeth Towle, leaving a state GOP training session in Concord, had a more pragmatic concern: "Can Jeb Bush win? A fresh face would have more appeal, I think," he said. "The Bush legacy has been a troubled legacy, so it would be nice to have a fresh face."

Funny how that common sentiment mirrored the headline on Breitbart.com:

Professor: Jeb 'Exactly the Republican the Clinton Campaign Desires'

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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