CEDAR FALLS, IA -- Jeb Bush is in the fight of his life against a number of candidates positioning themselves as establishment saviors. Watch him on the trail, however, and you’d assume his only rival was Donald Trump.
“We don’t need a leader who has no curiosity about what the challenges are and plights are for people,” Bush said here at a town hall on Saturday. “We don’t need a leader who disparages people and says you’re a loser if you’re a POW, which is disgusting, as far as I’m concerned.”
Trump was the one candidate Bush called out by name in his Iowa events on Saturday, though his big-money super PAC is pouring tens of millions of dollars into ads attacking Sen. Marco Rubio, his chief rival for support. His fellow Floridian may be the most immediate threat, but Bush sees Trump as the best foil for his own message of competence, compassion and humility.
While Bush went after Rubio in the debate, saying he “cut and run” from his own bill providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In Cedar Falls, Bush repeated the phrase in more general terms, saying he "won’t cut and run when the going gets tough,” but left the Rubio comparison implicit. Later, after taking a question on immigration, he complained that certain candidates were “in the witness protection” when the topic of legalization came up, but again declined to name names.
Bush’s strategy in Iowa, and the role it plays in his presidential hopes, is nuanced. His super PAC, Right to Rise, has spent more in the state on ads than anyone else: $14.9 million. At the same time, the campaign has downplayed expectations of a particularly strong performance for months, instead emphasizing New Hampshire as his electoral launch pad. In a signal of the Granite State’s importance, Bush will leave Iowa for New Hampshire before the caucus results come in.
“Jeb has said he’ll campaign everywhere to earn every vote,” Bush campaign spokesman Tim Miller told MSNBC after a Bush town hall in Clear Lake.
The biggest danger for Bush might not be a weak performance in Iowa, which seems all but inevitable, but a strong performance for Rubio. The Florida senator has earned positive press for his Thursday debate performance and the final Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll on Saturday had him locked into third place with 15 percent support versus 23 percent for Ted Cruz and 28 percent for Trump. The same poll pegged Bush at 2 percent in a four-way tie for seventh place.
If Rubio can turn in a solid finish on Monday, it could give him enough momentum heading into New Hampshire to break away from Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich, all of whom are currently packed tightly together in state polls behind Trump.
In many ways, Bush is closing his Iowa campaign the same way it began, pitching himself as an experienced hand and even-keeled personality in a field filled with untested neophytes and erratic outsiders.
Throughout the day, Bush focused on national security issues in his remarks, in which he derided President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for believing they could “lead from behind.” He brought along two Medal of Honor winners, who underscored Bush’s serious tone with harrowing war stories, and boasted about the many military leaders advising him.
“If you think a leader is all about the volume of your voice, just saying outrageous stuff, that that’s leadership, we're going to be in a heap of trouble,” Bush said in Cedar Falls.
In Clear Lake, Bush recounted Trump flubbed a debate question on the nuclear triad of air, land and sea delivery systems. The audience actually gasped when he quoted Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson’s response that the billionaire was not “afraid” to use nuclear weapons.
“He’s running for president, it’s not like he’s running for entertainer-in-chief here,” Bush said.
Bush’s sustained emphasis on service and humility struck a chord with Steve Futrell, an undecided independent who came out to watch the candidate in Clear Lake.
“It was refreshing to hear someone talk reasonably about serving as president instead of working up their ego,” he said.
Whatever the outcome, Bush appears to be running as his most authentic self in the final stretch. He’s even taken to emphasizing his family ties more, telling crowds that he’s learned from both his father and brother’s presidencies. On Saturday, he criticized President Obama for blaming too many of the nation’s problems on his predecessor.
“That was great for about five long years as the brother of a president,” he said in Cedar Falls. “I got sick of that, and I hope you did too.”
Bush’s family history is baked into the cake no matter what he does, but it’s still consistently been one of his biggest barriers to support. Rainey Sewell, a 24-year-old Bush volunteer in town from Oklahoma, told MSNBC that she had largely found Iowans had a positive impression of Bush even as dynasty concerns came up regularly.
“Some are put off by his last name, but he didn’t choose it,” she said.