Given up for dead, the only question remaining was who would dispose of the political corpse of former Gov. Jeb Bush. But the big lug demonstrated during last week's Republican presidential debate that he still has a pulse. Barely.
Bush exudes the passion and charisma of somewhere between Old Dobbin and the state executioner. But going into the debate with a campaign running on fumes, it was apparent Bush realized he needed to both appear presidential and confront Donald Trump, the Garfield of the GOP.
For months, Trump has been needling Bush as "low energy." Citing plunging poll numbers, he has dismissed Bush's viability as a candidate. He has never missed a chance to hurl an indignity in the heir not-so-apparent's direction. Yet until last week, Bush has generally responded with all the outrage of discovering the maid placed the finger bowl on the wrong side of the fine china setting.
Let's face it. Bush is a lousy elbow-thrower. He did get frisky a few weeks ago in a sloppy effort to take Sen. Marco Rubio to task for having a poorer work ethic than Animal House's Bluto Blutarsky. Young master Rubio turned the question around, noting that Bush had endorsed Sen. John McCain — an even worse Washington truant when he ran for president in 2008. And that left Bush looking as if someone had just spilled Mountain Dew on his jodhpurs.
But now Bush grasps that he has failed to take advantage of his greatest political gift. He is a carrier of irritability. He exudes irritation. To know him is to be instantly irritated by his sanctimonious, posing-for-holy-pictures air of superiority.
And he finally put his skills to good use in Las Vegas.
While most of the other candidates avoided directly taking on the cantaloupe of the Electoral College, Bush plowed ahead. He accused Trump of not being a serious figure and called him out as a "chaos candidate, and he'd be a chaos president." This drove Trump to blubbering distraction, since no politician likes to be reminded of the truth. Bush mused that while the persimmon of American politics may be full of bluster and blarney and perhaps some other stuff, Trump would fail to "insult your way to the presidency — it's not going to happen."
And in what had to be one of Bush's better shots at the Creamsicle of Seventh Avenue, the former governor noted a Trump claim that he gets most of his foreign news from "the shows." But it wasn't clear, observed Bush, if these were the "Saturday morning shows or the Sunday morning shows." Well played, old chap.
As Bush lectured Trump that being president requires toughness, the Ronald McDonald of the dais retorted, "Oh yeah, and you're a tough guy, Jeb." But Trump's flaying response had a sort of hapless "Yeah, and so's your old lady!" feel to it. Someone had finally figured out how to get under Trump's scales, and it had to be the imperious patrician. And that only rattled the apprentice politician even more.
Trump quickly reminded Bush that the former governor has been polling in single digits, while the Orange Is the New Hack candidate has been polling around 40 percent. And that is true. And it is also true that after one evening in Las Vegas when Bush got the better of Trump, no one should expect to see a dramatic surge in the former governor's numbers.
Still, if Bush can begin to move his polling upward just a bit, last week's debate might well mark the re-emergence of the man who would be king. And after Bush's super political action committee reportedly blew through tens of millions of dollars with less to show for the effort than entering Wile E. Coyote in the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, the governor's political stock isn't exactly blue-chip investment quality.
Other candidates may have acquitted themselves well at the debate. Jeez, the obsequious Texas Sen. Ted Cruz practically crawled into Trump's lap. But for Bush, this was a political version of Survivor as the children's debate table light flickered.
For one brief moment, Trump tripped over the truth.
Jeb Bush — tough guy.