Journalists are writing Jeb Bush's political obituary, asking him about dropping out of the race soon. Every day seems to bring ever-grimmer polls — fifth place in Florida, only 4 percent support nationally — and in all-important New Hampshire, voters are starting to profess pity for the former front-runner.
Yet Bush appears strikingly upbeat on a three-day bus tour of the Granite State. The former Florida governor has never been adroit at masking his real feelings, and he hardly looks joyful in the role of sputtering longshot candidate, but neither does he look defeated or glum.
"Show heart. Campaign in a way that I can show that I'm a leader, not a talker. I'm a doer," he said of his game plan 100 days before New Hampshire's primary. It is widely seen as a must-win state for Bush, and he currently sits in fifth place, based on the average of recent polls.
"And just do it, go out and do it over and over again. Get better each and every day. We've got a long way to go."
Bush, sporting his personalized cowboy boots and joking that an aide offering him M&Ms must think he needs more energy, chatted for more than 40 minutes with a handful of reporters Tuesday night aboard his campaign bus.
"I don't mean this disrespectfully at all: I don't follow every word of what you guys record or write," he said, explaining how he stays focused amid the lousy press lately. "It doesn't help me get better, per se."
The easy access offered a clear contrast to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as most of his Republican primary rivals. It also harkened back to John McCain's presidential primary campaigns, first in 2000 when McCain's Straight Talk Express bested George W. Bush in New Hampshire and then in 2008 when McCain managed to effectively come back from the dead to win the nomination.
"I've got to go win this my own way," Bush said, "but . . . (McCain) had a second act and came back from what the pundits said was an impossible task and won."
Bush has adopted a new slogan, "Jeb Can Fix It," and he's traveling through New Hampshire with several old Florida friends to vouch for his can-do record in the Sunshine State: Cheryl Cliett, a former Tallahassee teacher who served as the first "teacher in residence" in the governor's office; former Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger; Patricia Levesque, his former deputy chief of staff for education; Tiffany Carr, head of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence; and Denisha Merriweather, a once struggling student who credits Bush with turning around Florida's education system and her own life.
A consistent sentiment among New Hampshire voters who see him in person: He is far more appealing, and energetic, than they had been led to believe.
"He seems so much more energetic than he has been. It's probably the meeting with mommy and daddy that got him going," suggested Hampton resident Cynthia Blodgett, after listening to Bush in a barn in Rye, N.H. She is also interested in Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina.
Bush generally receives solid reviews for town hall-style campaign events — "I feel comfortable in settings like that where it's give and take, where there's questions asked, where I can show the depth," he said. But he understands the televised debates have been disastrous for him. Tuesday is the next one, and he has a strategy.
"The so-called debate is more of a performance. It's not a debate like you answer questions. It gives you the opportunity to say whatever you want," he said. "I've got to train myself to say what's on my mind rather than what the question is."
Going in, "I felt really good about the debate I screwed up on," he said, but it turned out his team's preparation for specific questions was pointless.
"I don't think any question that we prepared for was a question that was asked, because they didn't do anything they said they were going to do," he said of CNBC. "I got shouted down when I tried to interrupt in the beginning, then I couldn't finish the sentence in the Marco deal, and then I never got asked a question that was relevant. It was just kind of an off night."
Until this year, by far the two highest-profile debates Bush participated in were 1994 when the late Lawton Chiles left Bush flummoxed by declaring, "The old he-coon walks just before the light of day," and 2002 when the late Bill McBride stumbled when pressed to give a cost estimate for a class-size reduction mandate he supported.
The moderator in both those debates was the late Tim Russert.
"Russert wouldn't let you come up for air if you tried to do anything like what's going on here," Bush said. "You remember that last debate where (McBride) could not answer one question? He kept bobbing and weaving. Russert just destroyed him."
Bush's biggest misstep last week was falling flat in criticizing Sen. Rubio for a poor attendance record in the U.S. Senate. "What is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?" he quipped.
On the bus Tuesday night, Bush joked that he had done a disservice to the French, understating their work habits.
He also expounded on his longtime and increasingly complicated relationship with Rubio, when asked why he never endorsed Rubio in his 2010 Senate primary campaign against then-Republican Charlie Crist.
"Everybody knew that I cared for the guy, that I supported him, but a public endorsement would have made it harder for him to beat the standing incumbent," Bush said. "And he beat him like a drum. And it warmed my heart. Beat him like a drum, crushed him."
In the summer of 2009, when the race still looked like a longshot for Rubio, the former Florida House speaker nearly dropped out to run for attorney general.
"I said, 'What are you doing, man?' I called him up. 'You want to be a United States Senator, don't you?' And he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'If you want to be a United States senator you've got to run for the United States Senate.' "
Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.