SUMMERVILLE, South Carolina – Jeb Bush took the stage Wednesday at a beautiful country club here fit for a picture-perfect wedding. If the state’s voters don’t say “I do” on Saturday, it could be his campaign’s funeral.
Bush’s event began just moments after the campaign received a deflating piece of news: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who Bush had called “probably the most meaningful endorsement” in the state on Tuesday, would endorse Sen. Marco Rubio.
Bush didn’t address the news in his remarks, but at one point in the speech he complained that the pundits were trying to run him out of the race.
“It’s all been decided, apparently,” he said. “We don’t have to go vote. I should stop campaigning, maybe. That’s not how democracy works, right?”
This is not the kind of thing you usually hear from winning candidates, and it was almost physically painful watching the candidate’s frustrations pour out. Afterward, Bush told reporters he was “disappointed” by Haley’s endorsement.
“She's a very good governor, and should I win the nomination there will be a role for her in the campaign,” he added.
Bush trotted out a fresh look this week, dropping his trademark glasses for contact lenses, but the old problems have followed him. He’s competing with Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich for mainstream GOP votes on one end and tormented by Donald Trump’s vicious insults, which this week have focused on his brother George W. Bush, on the other.
Bush issued one of his toughest arguments on Wednesday as to why Rubio, his former protégé, was still not qualified to lead based on his limited experience as a legislator.
"It’s hard for me to be lectured to by a gifted young guy who thinks that going to a committee hearing means you know something about the world,” Bush said. “You know something about the world when you're involved in the world, when you're actively engaged.”
By contrast, Bush recounted how he had governed through crisis after crisis in Florida, headlined by multiple hurricanes in a short time span.
The audience there was supportive, but they sounded worried about his campaign and they let him know it. One voter said he was “afraid your message doesn’t resonate” and asked whether Bush was “knocked off center” by Trump’s insults.
“I don’t feel like I’m shaken up by the bully,” Bush said. “I’m the only guy going after the guy, because he's hijacking the party that I believe is the path to prosperity for more and more people.”
Another voter said he loved Bush’s brother, but wanted to know whether the governor could be a “sumbitch” when needed.
“Will I be an SOB, I think he said?” Bush replied. “I will be tough. I will be resolute. I will be firm. I will be clear. I will be determined.”
After earning a reprieve with a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire ahead of Rubio, Bush is raising expectations in South Carolina that, if current polling showing him well behind Trump, Rubio and Cruz bears out, he will not meet.
Bush's campaign has argued the state lines up with Bush’s emphasis on military issues – he talked up his opposition to base closures in his remarks Wednesday – and has a longtime connection to his family. The campaign released a video of Bush campaigning with his brother on Wednesday titled “Bush country.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina's senior senator and Bush’s top supporter, told reporters afterward that it was difficult to get Bush’s policy message out in debates while Trump was baiting him.
“You tell me how you do that onstage,” Graham said. “You tell me how you do that in 30 seconds. You tell me how you do that when somebody just accused your brother of causing 9/11, just accused your brother of lying to the American people, [how] you talk about your health care plan.”
Time is running out fast for the GOP to stop Trump, and if Bush doesn’t show he can plausibly overtake Rubio and Cruz soon he will face enormous pressure to drop out before a crucial set of March 1 contests that includes several more southern states.
Within the audience, voters sounded concerned about the growing prospect of a Trump presidency.
“He scares the hell out of me on foreign policy,” retired chemist Larry Krueger, who sees Bush as a steady hand on the military and economy, told MSNBC.
“We know who we’re not voting for: Trump,” Adair Roark, a 37-year old Summerville resident, told MSNBC before Bush spoke. She was undecided, but her 9-year old daughter Chandler had already made up her mind.
“Jeb Bush,” the girl said. “He has good sportsmanship.”