PLAISTOW, N.H. — Jeb Bush's stump speech started to take on a defensive, pleading tone in the days following his sixth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses last week.
"I know I've been written off, I know the end is near, I know all that stuff," the onetime overwhelming favorite for the Republican presidential nomination told a couple of hundred people in a school cafeteria in Concord. "You know what gives me confidence? New Hampshire. … I trust you all. I've shown my heart. I've shown the depth of knowledge."
Political reporters have been asking him about quitting the race and how his campaign failed so spectacularly.
But New Hampshire has a knack for reviving struggling campaigns and embracing underdogs, as it did with Ronald Reagan, John McCain and Bill Clinton. Polls of the state's primary electorate are notoriously unreliable, but Bush this week showed signs he may be getting his second wind, and he and his allies insist that no matter what, he will compete in South Carolina's Feb. 20 primary.
A second- or third-place showing tonight could reverse the grim story line of Bush's campaign, while a fifth-place showing would extend it. New Hampshire wounded his father's and brother's presidential campaigns, and now it will determine whether this Bush limps into South Carolina or bounds in.
"He needs momentum from New Hampshire," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who endorsed Bush after suspending his own campaign for president.
"If he does good in his governor's lane and he performs competitively, it will help a lot," Graham said, referring to Bush, Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, the three governors running. "The better he does in New Hampshire, the better he does in South Carolina. He's got the best infrastructure of anybody in South Carolina, and the Bush name is really popular in South Carolina."
Polls have long shown Donald Trump dominating the rest of the field in New Hampshire, with the real competition being for second and third place between Bush, Christie, Kasich and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Rubio appeared to have the wind at his back after his stronger-than-expected third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, but his momentum may have slowed or halted after a shaky debate Saturday in which Rubio kept repeating the same talking points. Bush supporters — including at least 100 Floridians trudging through snow and ice on his behalf — have grown steadily more optimistic this week with Bush drawing overflow crowds.
"The debate was a pivotal moment," said former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, who joined Bush at a Rotary meeting Monday in Nashua.
"On the ground — I was here four weeks ago — the difference and the feel with voters now is stark," Weatherford said. "Just the excitement level, the crowd size, the engagement, people that are giving him a second look. Everybody seems to be bunched up in the polls. If Gov. Bush can punch through that crowd and make a really big statement, I think he goes into South Carolina with a lot of momentum."
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said he has been heartened by conversations with voters while knocking on doors.
"I just let people know I am a Floridian, I had the privilege of serving in the Legislature with Jeb. Is there anything I can share? And they'll often ask, Is the man a conservative? I say absolutely — we did tort reform, we did education reform, we did tax reform, we did civil service reform, you name it," Atwater said. "They're very responsive"
In a sign that Bush sees Kasich as his biggest threat to beating the other governors, the Bush campaign on Monday started airing a commercial touting Bush as a reliable conservative, compared with Kasich, who supported an assault weapons ban, Medicaid expansion and defense cuts.
Kasich and Christie have staked their campaigns almost entirely on New Hampshire, holding 186 (Kasich) and 190 (Christie) campaign events, according to the New England Cable Network. Bush has held 111 and Rubio 86. But Bush has been building campaign operations outside of New Hampshire and has far more money than either Kasich or Christie.
As of Jan. 1, Bush's campaign had $7.6 million on hand, and his super PAC had $58 million.
"I probably won't make up my mind until I get in the voting booth," said Kathleen Giacobbe of Plaistow, who was leaning toward Rubio and Kasich. Bush, she said, is out. Too establishment.
As a snowstorm bore down on New Hampshire, Rubio shook hands at a diner in Nashua.
One voter expressed his confidence to the senator that he would finish second in the New Hampshire primary.
"Second? I always want to get as many votes as I can!" Rubio joked. "We'll see what happens tomorrow."
Another man was more encouraging, shouting, "You're going to win, senator!"
Rubio, 44, casts himself as the candidate best equipped to unite the GOP and to take on Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, in part because he grew up in a family living paycheck to paycheck and in part because he represents a new generation.
Speaking to the Rotary Club in the same town, Bush warned members to be wary of untested senators like Rubio and Cruz.
"I can promise you it will happen in the next presidency — there will be a conflict, there will be an attack, there might be an outbreak of a disease. Something is going to happen. … 9/11 is an example of that," Bush said.
"All presidents have this opportunity and the question is, 'Who do you want to have to sit behind the big desk?' What kind of person do you want to have in this unforeseen, dynamic world where you don't know exactly how it all plays out? And I hope you want to have someone that actually has had some proven skills of leadership through life."
Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.