TAMPA, Florida — Under siege after a disastrous debate performance, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush debuted a new message in his home state contrasting his “strong conservative leadership” with inexperienced rivals he warned could lead the Republican Party to disaster.
“The challenges we face as a nation are too great to roll the dice on another presidential experiment, to trust the rhetoric of reform over a record of reform,” Bush told a crowd of supporters at the Tampa Garden Club. “After seven years of incompetence, corruption and gridlock in Washington, we need a president who can fix it. I can fix it.”
RELATED: How Jeb Bush is trying to 'fix it'
Bush’s daylong “Jeb Can Fix It” tour through Florida comes as he struggles to quiet whispers that his candidacy is beyond repair. His campaign announced major payroll cuts late last month and dropped its COO amid a slump in the polls and his primary rivals’ surprising fundraising strength. The pressure to turn the campaign around — and fast — increased drastically last week after a devastating debate performance in which his onetime protegee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, easily shut down an attack from Bush over his recent missed votes.
Throughout Monday's speech, Bush spun his much-maligned debate performances as a sign of seriousness rather than a dangerous vulnerability. He mocked “candidates disguised as television critics” who were “echoing poll-tested pabulum.” His two terms as governor proved he could break gridlock, reform education, and close budget deficits, Bush said.
“If you watched the debate, you probably came away thinking this election is about sound bites or fantasy football or which candidate can interrupt the loudest,” Bush said. “I’m here to tell you it’s not. This election is not about a set of personalities. It’s about a set of principles.”
The campaign is bracing for things to get worse before they get better. Bush's communications director Tim Miller tweeted on Monday that Bush would likely suffer "a few weeks of bad polls" before their comeback strategy kicks in.
"I don't know what the point of that is to be honest with you," Bush said Monday evening when asked for comment on his aide's prediction. "That's all that process stuff — it would be like kryptonite for me. I'm just, I'm not into all that. That's Tim, that's his world. My world is about campaigning hard."
Bush’s tour, which will include later stops this week in South Carolina and New Hampshire, is tied to the release of a new e-book, “Reply All.” The book details his governorship through his email records. As governor, Bush publicly gave out his firstname.lastname@example.org email address and frequently responded to constituents. The messages in the book cover everything from the recount in 2000 and his efforts to block Terri Schiavo’s husband from removing her feeding tube to managing hurricane preparations.
Bush's tenure in government and his famous family have been a double edged sword — they've allowed him to build a network of donors and supporters and a plausible presidential résumé, but it’s also gotten him tagged as the party’s “establishment” choice at a time when many GOP voters upset with traditional leadership have turned to unconventional candidates like Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson instead.
"People I guess think that I'm a creature of Washington," Bush told reporters Monday evening. He added that he would remind voters that he'd spent three decades in the private sector and had never actually lived in the nation's capital. In his speech in Tampa earlier that morning, Bush also took care to frame himself as an outsider.
“I went to Tallahassee as an agent of change,” Bush said. “I turned the political culture of Tallahassee upside down. And I’m putting The Beltway on notice: I’ll turn Washington upside down, too.”
At the same time, he warned that Democrats were trying to bait Republicans into picking a candidate whose outrage made them unelectable — especially when they talked about immigrants.
“On the issue of immigration, [Democrats] have written a script for Republicans, filled with grievance and resentment,” Bush said. “Frankly, the last thing they want is a Republican challenger who takes them out of their comfort zone of forced indignation and PC platitudes.”
As he has done on the trail for weeks, Bush chastised Trump and his “Make American Great Again” slogan in particular, which he said wrongly implied the country wasn’t great already.
“I will do everything in my power to win this race, but there are some things I am not willing to do,” Bush said. “I will not compromise my principles, I will not trade in an optimistic outlook to put on the cloak of an angry agitator, and I will not make anyone feel small so I can feel big.”
To go the other direction, Bush said, will lead to a nominee who plays “a bit part in the story of another conservative loss and another liberal victory.”
The stakes are high for Bush in getting his new message to connect. Rubio is competing for many of the same Republican voters, donors, and endorsements as the Bush/Rubio face-off onstage at Wednesday's debate was the strongest sign yet that the upstart senator has eclipsed his former mentor as the establishment front-runner.
Within days of the event, influential GOP donor and billionaire investor Paul Singer endorsed Rubio, and his campaign claims a number of Bush donors have called about potentially switching sides, as well. If Bush's campaign doesn’t show signs of life soon, he can expect more and more calls to drop out so that Rubio can unite the mainstream wing of the party against insurgents like Trump, Carson, and Sen. Ted Cruz.
Bush received some good news of his own on the endorsement front this week too, however. On Monday, Rubio’s own former chief of staff from his time as speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives, Richard Corcoran, announced he was backing Bush.