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Bush campaign cuts staff and limits spending as challenges mount

Mired by weak polling and a surprisingly robust fundraising challenge from his rivals, Jeb Bush's presidential campaign is dramatically cutting staff and payroll. The surprise move raises new questions about the candidate's viability heading into Wednesday's Republican debate in Colorado. 

The cuts include a 40% reduction in payroll impacting all but the most entry level staff, a reduced staff level at the campaign's Miami headquarters, slashing travel costs by 20% and cutting 45% of the budget not dedicated to voter contact or media. Some staff are being laid off, though more are being offered new positions at lower salaries.

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"This means lean and mean and it means that I have the ability to adapt," Bush said at a forum in Virginia Beach on Friday. "The circumstances when we started the election were different."

At the top of the list of changed "circumstances": The rise of Republican polling leader Donald Trump, with whom Bush has feuded repeatedly during the campaign.

"I have not met a person that thought Donald Trump would be the front-running candidate at this point," Bush said. "God bless him for his success in that regard, we’ll see how long that lasts."

Bush's campaign officials assert that they have a strong national finance operation that can carry the candidate through the primary and into the general election - reiterating the $13 million it raised during the third quarter and $10 million cash on hand. Right To Rise PAC, the $100 million-plus outside group backing Bush, is still a force and its top official Mike Murphy told Bloomberg News earlier this week that they were planning for a long -- and expensive slog -- focused on winning states well after the early primaries. Bush is scheduled to attend a reception with the group's top donors in Houston this weekend.

Friday's belt tightening comes after months of smaller reductions in spending and staff as the campaign has faced an increasingly challenging political landscape. It represents a dramatic shift in tone from earlier this year, when Bush's allies famously predicted that early fundraising would "shock and awe" other candidates into submission. 

Bush had quieted previous murmurs of concern from supporters by noting that Right To Rise PAC had yet to start advertising. In a troubling development for the candidate, the group has now poured over $6 million into ads in New Hampshire, a critical early state for Bush, with little to show for their spending in the polls, where Trump still leads recent surveys and Carson has moved into second place. Bush sits in third place with 9.3% support among New Hampshire Republican voters, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. The group has also spent $2.8 million in Iowa, where Bush is significantly further behind -- two polls this week, including a highly respected Bloomberg/Des Moines Register survey, found just 5% of prospective Republican voters planned on supporting him. 

In addition to Trump's momentum, Bush has faced a stiff challenge from Sen. Marco Rubio, who could steal establishment and donor support should Bush continue to lag. Conservative insurgents Dr. Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz have also proved surprisingly adept at fundraising: Carson raised over $20 million last quarter to lead the field while Cruz accumulated the most cash on hand with $13.8 million. Rubio, despite raising less money than Bush, ended with roughly as much cash on hand. 

Bush frequently says he is focused on the long haul and his campaign says it's investments in early voting states as well as it's data and digital operation will make the governor among the most competitive in the primary and into the general election.

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The campaign has nearly 40 paid staffers spread out between the four early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. With today's news comes word that the operation in New Hampshire will receive additional focus and voters in all four states will see more of the candidate.

At least one Republican challenger took the opportunity to promote their own campaign. Ohio Governor John Kasich's senior aide tweeted:

Bush has focused much of the fall on policy rollouts and the campaign says it will work to better emphasize a message based on the governor's experience and ability to fix problems. That strategy will also include a focus on national security and reforming Washington.

News of the campaign restructuring comes just as the Super PAC backing Bush's White House bid debuted a new advertisement to run in Iowa and New Hampshire that touts Bush's time as governor.

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