This story has been updated.
Jeb Bush desperately needed a strong debate performance Wednesday night to reboot his struggling campaign. Instead he emerged in even worse shape than before. A day later, rather than promising a new approach, Bush was left lamenting that he lacks the political skills of some of his rivals.
Not everyone has given up on Bush. At a stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he bagged an endorsement from former Sen. Judd Gregg.
“He has put forth more substantive thoughts and idea on these issues then all the other candidates combined, and they’re good ideas and they will lead America to a stronger and better day,” Gregg, who also has served as New Hampshire's governor, told a crowd.
But at the same event, Bush seemed to acknowledge his shortcomings as a campaigner. "I wish I could talk as well as some of the people on the stage, the big personalities on the stage," he said. "But I'm a doer."
The campaign is working hard to convince its backers not to lose hope. Bush held a conference call with top donors Thursday afternoon, where he vowed to improve as a candidate, stressed his commitment to early states, especially New Hampshire, and said he was looking forward to being back out on the trail, NBC News reported.
Asked by NBC News on Thursday evening how he planned to become a better candidate, Bush said, "I'm going to have to do what other candidates do: which is rudely interrupt, not answer the questions that are asked, and hopefully the debate moderators will actually ask more substantive questions as well. It's going fine."
As to whether he's having any fun on the campaign trail, Bush offered an unconvincing "yes."
Donors at a fundraiser hosted by Bush's older brother, George W. Bush, in Georgetown Thursday evening told NBC News the former president's message regarding his brother's campaign was "keep the faith." The elder Bush emphasized that it's "a long game" and that the campaign is focused on long-term strategy. George W. Bush suggested that much of the aura of pessimism about the campaign was the press's doing, according to one guest. Another said of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio -- Bush's top rival at Wednesday's debate -- "He's great, just too young and inexperienced."
But the reality is that if Bush can't forge a connection with voters, he won't get the chance to show his more cerebral skills.
“Unfortunately, you don’t get to go govern—the part that he loves, being face-to-face with your constituents – unless you put on a performance as a candidate,” Nicolle Wallace, who served as communications chief during George W. Bush’s presidency, noted to MSNBC.
Wednesday night, Bush's performance was as tentative as ever. Early in the night, he took a predictable swing at Rubio—once the former Florida governor's political protegé—over Rubio's dismal voting record. The senator easily brushed it off. “The only reason why you’re [attacking me] is because we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio said, to loud applause.
From that point on, Bush seemed to fade into the shadows, as Rubio grew stronger. And the reviews could hardly have been harsher. “Bush’s campaign now finds itself on life support,” said NBC’s First Read. David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, called the governor “the man for one season.” MSNBC host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough said “the death watch is on” and predicted Bush would have fundraising troubles.
Bush’s campaign is putting on a brave face. Sally Bradshaw, Bush’s longtime adviser, said in the spin room after the debate that he's in it for the long haul. “I’m not anxious or concerned,” she said. The Bush team sent talking points to its supporters after the event painting Bush as “the real conservative reformer,” adding that while “Marco Rubio showed why he has a reputation for rhetoric and ambition,” Bush “showed why he has a record for reform and leadership.”
On Thursday, Team Bush signaled that the attacks on Rubio aren't going to stop. Right to Rise, the pro-Bush super PAC, started a Twitter feed, “@isMarcoWorking,” to draw attention to the senator's attendance record.
But under the surface, Team Bush is clearly exasperated. Campaign manager Danny Diaz reportedly confronted a CNBC producer over the amount of time allotted to the former governor during the debate. And asked in a post-debate interview with CNN whether his GOP competitors outperformed him, Bush again seemed to express disdain for the process.
“I’m running for president of the United States. I’m running with heart," he said. "I’m not a performer. If they’re looking for an entertainer-in-chief, I’m probably not your guy.”
The big question now is whether top donors will leave Bush for Rubio. That would help the senator translate his well-received debate performance into actual support, potentially allowing him to claim the GOP establishment mantle that Bush had once seemed assured of.
Rubio has turned his debate performance into a fundraising bonanza. A campaign official told NBC News that the campaign had taken in over $750,000 online, from 14,000 unique donations, as of 3 p.m. Thursday.
Bush does have some redemption opportunities around the corner. On Sunday, he’ll be on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The next GOP debate is scheduled for Nov. 10 in Milwaukee.
Kasie Hunt, Carrie Dann and Kailani Koenig contributed reporting.