DES MOINES, Iowa — No endorsements were made, but Jeb Bush got the next best thing Friday from the top three Republicans in Iowa — personal time at the Iowa State Fair.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst welcomed the former Florida governor to the fair early Friday and Gov. Terry Branstad joined him to flip pork loins on the sizzling grill at the Iowa Pork Producers tent later in the morning. Bush's comprehensive tour included snacking on a deep fried Snickers bar, sampling pork chops on sticks and appearing on the political soapbox — where he got pinged on Iraq, capping a week in which he focused heavily on foreign policy.
Recent polls indicate the former Florida governor is struggling in Iowa, but Bush said many voters are still looking at the field. Asked whether he was "all in" for the leadoff caucus state, the former Florida governor stressed that he would be "competitive." Bush said his father, George H.W. Bush, was an "asterisk" at this stage of the 1980 race.
"Last time around there were candidates that were winning at this point that never even made it to the starting line," Bush said.
During his time on the soapbox hosted by The Des Moines Register newspaper, Bush stressed his executive experience and said he supports education standards created by states. He also gave out an email address to the crowd of hundreds and said he was committed to transparency.
Still, Bush could not fully escape questions about his family's political legacy, taking several foreign policy questions during the 20-minute appearance. He pushed back against an audience member who noted Bush's brother, former President George W. Bush, signed the deal requiring U.S. forces to exit Iraq by 2011, arguing that the plans could have been modified. Bush recently rolled out a strategy to fight the Islamic State, blaming the rise of the militant group on the troop departure in 2011.
"Everybody in Iraq and everybody in Washington knew this deal could have been expanded," Bush said. "Now we need to do something else, which is to deal with the fact that we have Islamic terrorists organized as a caliphate."
Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday criticized Bush on Iraq.
"I do think it's a little bit surprising to hear Jeb Bush talk about this. He expects the American people to have a collective case of amnesia. Particularly the fact that George W. Bush signed the agreement ... setting the withdrawal date at the end of 2011. Something else we inherited."
Asked whether he was taking advice from Paul Wolfowitz — a senior Defense Department official under both his brother and father — Bush said Wolfowitz was providing some advice but that most policy guidance came from a team in Miami. He noted that when it comes to advisers, anyone with executive experience would have dealt with one of the Bush administrations.
"This is kind of a tough game for me to be playing, to be honest with you," Bush said. "I'm my own person."
Bush pledged to be a president who would find bipartisan consensus on issues, though he took a swipe at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"I campaign the way that I would govern, out amongst everybody, no rope lines," Bush said, referring to an effort by her campaign to separate Clinton from reporters by using a rope line at a July 4 parade. "The next president is going to have to unite this country."
Bush's family was also referenced by voters as he walked among the booths selling deep-fried funnel cakes, corn dogs and pork chops. One man asked about his father's health.
"My dad's recovering, and my mom's the best caregiver in the world," Bush said.
After downing a beer on the sweltering morning, Bush sat down at a table at the fair's beer tent and chatted with Chris McLinden, a Dallas County Republican who recently agreed to head up Bush's efforts in the key GOP county.
McLinden said later he didn't think Bush's last name would be a liability and that Iowa voters would come to know him.
"That's a really bad reason not to vote for him," McLinden said. "He's his own person."
Billionaire Donald Trump, who has been leading the polls, plans to visit the fair Saturday.