Jeb Bush began to "actively explore" a presidential run six months ago, and the plan was to raise so much money and show so much political strength as to scare away credible Republican rivals, much as brother George W. Bush did in 1999.
But as Florida's former governor finally makes his 2016 candidacy official today in Miami, he hardly looks like an inevitable nominee or runaway frontrunner. He actually looks significantly weaker than he did when he started this process.
Since kicking off what his aides dubbed a "shock and awe" preliminary campaign, Bush has lost ground in most polls.
"I thought Jeb was just going to suck all the air out of the room, and it just hasn't happened," Ohio Gov. John Kasich said recently to explain why he is seriously looking at jumping into the crowded Republican primary field.
In an average of national polls of Republican voters, Bush has dropped from 17 percent support in January to 11 percent today, according to RealClearPolitics.com. He is in fourth place in the first caucus state of Iowa. In New Hampshire — where a loss could be devastating — a Bloomberg poll in May showed Bush effectively tied with Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The Bush team tacitly acknowledged its rocky start last week by shuffling campaign leadership. Expected campaign manager David Kochel will instead focus on leading the effort in crucial early voting states, while respected Washington-based strategist Danny Diaz moves to Miami to manage the campaign.
We're at least six months before any voting begins and next month Bush is expected to report having raised in the neighborhood of $100 million. So it's absurd to underestimate the candidate with by far the most money, GOP establishment support and personal experience with presidential campaigns.
It's also possible that the die is cast. All the money in the world and the best campaign team ever ultimately may not be enough to overcome Bush's image as yesterday's Republican leader.
"There's no enthusiasm for him. Nice guy, competent, did a good job in Florida, but his policies don't resonate up here. We don't need someone who represents Washington, and people I talk to see Bush as representing Washington," said David Scott, a Republican activist in Dover, N.H., who backed Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 and sees Bush as a weak general election candidate. "We have five or six Republicans who are exciting candidates. Bush certainly has a talent for raising money, but he is a boring candidate."
Nancy McGowan, a prominent Republican fundraiser and activist in Jacksonville, enthusiastically supported Bush as governor, but says he's no longer the conservative she once admired.
"This Jeb has no shot with the base of the party, which he needs to win the nomination," McGowan said. "Quite frankly, America has many great leaders. It's time for the Bush family to step back and allow the next generation to lead — as Mitt Romney did — and show some graciousness and humility."
Money and establishment support usually wins out, but Bush is running in a very different Republican Party than his brother did in 2000 and his father did in 1988. The conservative grass roots has wrested considerable power away from the party elites, and Bush must overcome not just name fatigue, but also fierce hostility to his positions on hot-button issues like education and immigration.
Ultimately, the candidate matters more than the campaign.
Should we really have been so surprised that it took him several days last month to coherently explain whether he thinks invading Iraq was a good idea? Two years ago, it took him several days to coherently explain his position on immigration reform after rolling out a new book — on immigration reform.
Bush, who has never won a truly competitive race, is not a fellow easily managed or coached by political advisers. It's part of his appeal, but also reflects a stubborn and imperious streak.
It is Bush, not his campaign, who not only stands by positions despised by many conservative activists — Common Core educational standards and legal status for undocumented immigrants — but also often sounds contemptuous of people who disagree. (His immigration plan, he said earlier this year, is a "grownup plan.")
It may seem like we've seen this movie before. Romney struggled with the base on his way to winning the 2012 nomination. But Rubio and Walker are far stronger rivals than Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, and Bush's problems with the GOP base are far deeper than Romney's.
The Wall Street Journal noted recently that, at this point in 2011, its pollster found Romney the top choice among conservative voters. Bush currently ranks third among conservative voters. Likewise, twice as many conservative voters, 28 percent, have a negative view of Bush compared with Romney four years ago.
Jeb is the safest bet to win. But, he no longer earns even odds.
Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.