HAMPTON, New Hampshire -- Jeb Bush had a message for the workers at Foss Manufacturing Company on Thursday who might be tempted by a certain billionaire's siren call: Rage does not pay.
“Donald Trump’s view is that the end is near,” Bush said. “His pessimistic view is 'let’s close the borders, let’s create tariffs, let’s do this, let’s do that' all based on negativity and the net result is that all of us will suffer if that philosophy gains favor.”
Instead, Bush said, the answer is to stay “aspirational and hopeful” and focus on realistic policy prescriptions.
After that paean to sunny can-do politics, Dennis LeMare, a 58-year old conservative activist, took the microphone and offered Bush a rebuttal.
“We are pissed off right now,” he said. He pressed Bush to go on the “offensive” against Mexico by cutting off trade until they block migrants from crossing the border.
There was nothing new about this type of question: Bush has fielded dozens of similar ones since entering the presidential arena and responded, as always, with a detailed description of his plan to increase border security while providing a path to earned legalization for undocumented immigrants.
This week, however, there was a new urgency to the exchange, which comes as Bush is pivoting from treating Trump’s anti-immigration campaign and its large Republican following as a passing fad to confronting it as an existential threat. So far, the swaggering billionaire, soaring in the polls, has bloodied every candidate who’s tried to brand himself the “anti-Trump.” Bush’s nomination hangs on bucking that trend.
“I’m sure as hell, when he attacks me personally or disparages my family, damn right I’m going to fight back.”'
In two New Hampshire town halls on Thursday, Bush levied an escalating multi-pronged assault on Trump in which he accused him of abandoning conservative values, repelling minority voters, and dragging the race into the gutter with personal attacks.
“I’m sure as hell, when he attacks me personally or disparages my family, damn right I’m going to fight back,” a feisty Bush said at an evening event in Laconia. “I hope you agree too.”
Bush is betting on his anti-Trump offensive to move past a summer beset by weak polling, reports of fundraising hiccups, and rhetorical bumps on issues like birthright citizenship and the Iraq War. More than ever before, the pressure is on to prove he can still be the champion his backers envisioned when he launched his campaign in June.
Bush on offense
When Trump first topped the polls, the conventional wisdom, shared by some in Bush’s campaign, was that his rise was a blessing that would prevent more dangerous candidates from gaining traction while making Bush look like the adult in the room.
Sure enough, Trump halted momentum for top-tier rivals like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But the anti-Trump vote failed to coalesce around Bush. He is currently behind outsiders like Ben Carson in national polls and faces a vigorous challenge in New Hampshire from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose message combines Bush’s pragmatism with a twist of Trump’s populist appeal.
Against this backdrop, Trump’s attacks on Bush as a “low energy” tool of big donors have rattled supporters, scared donors, and visibly irritated the governor. The campaign now sees fighting back as a necessity to galvanize supporters and avoid appearing weak.
In the last few weeks, Bush’s campaign has labeled Trump “soft on crime” and released videos of him praising Democrats. Bush’s speeches on Thursday included references to his pro-choice past, his support for tax hikes on the rich, and his praise for government-run health care in Canada.
“What you’ll find is this guy is not a conservative,” Bush said in Laconia. “And this guy does not believe in the greatness of our country.”
After Bush derided Trump in Spanish at a Miami event, Trump told Breitbart News that he should “set the example” by sticking to English. Bush defended his bilingual campaigning on Thursday night as evidence he could draw in voters Trump could not.
“My belief is that most people are conservatives they just haven’t been asked yet,” he said. “If you have that attitude, then you go campaign in the Latino communities – yeah, maybe a little in Spanish.”
After the event, Bush accused Trump of using “dogwhistle terms” to fire up nativists by tweeting a supporter who said he was “speaking Mexican.” He joined the pile-on over an interview Trump did with radio host Hugh Hewitt in which he dismissed the importance of knowing different Middle East leaders and groups and mixed up Kurds with Iran's Quds Force.
"You got to know who the players, you need to know what the capabilities of the U.S. are, you need a strategy," Bush said.
At the same time, Bush is trying to co-opt parts of the anti-establishment message driving voters towards Trump and other unconventional options. In New Hampshire on Thursday, he made a point of playing up his proposals for term limits on lawmakers and new restrictions on lobbying. Turning to trade – another major Trump issue – he railed against “trading partners who don’t believe in fair trade.”
It’s hard to make his message heard, however, while Trump’s attacks are drowning everything out. The “low energy” line in particular seems to rankle Bush, who has boasted in recent appearances about working 16-hour days and running with soldiers.
“I’m working my tail off -- you notice it’s a little smaller than it was?” he joked in Laconia, referring to his diet.
Like many of Trump’s nastiest attacks, it stings because there’s a kernel of truth to the accusation. Bush’s town halls are packed with substantive ideas on taxes, health care, and immigration, but compared to the carnival-like atmosphere of Trump’s rallies, they can feel like eating vegetables. And it’s not just Trump who has noticed the potential in this angle: Democratic tracker American Bridge passed around video of an audience member falling asleep at Bush’s town hall on Thursday morning. Bush took a photo with her afterwards and the campaign took Bridge’s attack seriously enough to shoot back that the woman had worked a 4 a.m. shift that morning.
Perhaps in response, Bush turned up the energy at his Laconia event that evening, drawing repeated applause with a more detailed take-down of Trump’s positions and general election viability.
“I’m not going to participate in some reality TV show, I’m going to stay true to my beliefs,” he said to cheers.
Nonetheless, several Republican voters and donors sympathetic to Bush volunteered to msnbc in interviews that they were concerned about a lack of excitement around his campaign.
Joel Hoppenstein, a Republican donor in Florida, started the campaign expecting to back to Bush and Rubio. But after watching Trump and Carson out-poll them while rousing crowds with anti-establishment speeches, he’s starting to wonder whether they might be stronger nominees.
“I will in all likelihood give to Bush, but Trump’s questions about Bush’s energy level resonated with me,” he told msnbc.
Carol Riehlman, waiting to see Bush at a VFW Hall in Laconia, said she was drawn to Bush’s record, but was unimpressed so far. “He’s leaning back a bit,” she said.
At a town hall for Kasich on Wednesday, 66-year old Bob Wilkie told msnbc he had planned on backing Bush before concerns about his charisma gave him doubts.
“He was my No. 1 guy, but he’s fading,” he said. “He’s not very exciting.”
Kasich may not be the most exciting guy himself, but the unease around Bush gives him a bigger opening to pitch his similarly long resumé. At one Kasich event on Wednesday, the event’s emcee asked audience members whether they would attend a Trump event. A handful in the room of about 200 raised their hand. Asked whether they would attend a Bush event, however, hands shot up all over the place – around 40% of the crowd. Bush can’t afford to lose them while fending off a challenge to his right from Trump and the rest of the field.
Time to recover
It’s easy to look at Bush’s abysmal polling lately and conclude the campaign is going off the trails. But as Bush noted reporters on Thursday, it’s premature to judge him before he and his allies have deployed their most powerful weapons.
“We got a long haul to go,” he said. “I haven’t started to advertise. Right to Rise PAC hasn’t started to advertise.”
Republicans neutral in the race made similar points in interviews this week. While Trump dominated the summer with a media-friendly spectacle, few of the campaigns or their allies have spent significant money on ads to boost themselves or counter his rise. The one exception on ad spending – not coincidentally -- is Kasich, whose rise in New Hampshire has been aided by over $3 million in early ad spending from outside groups, according to an NBC News analysis. For perspective, the state’s Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan raised less than $3 million for her entire 2014 re-election campaign.
“They understand anything they say now will be treated as old news later so they want to hold onto their ammo. If they have good stuff they’ve tested they may wait until October or November."'
In 2012, Romney battled his way through a long primary while relying on his super PAC, which quickly became known as the “Death Star,” to vaporize a line of conservative rivals. This time the “Death Star” is Right To Rise, the $100 million-plus super PAC behind Bush’s candidacy. But its not operational yet – the group hasn’t aired a single ad. That all will change in mid-September, when $21.7 million in ads Right To Rise has reserved in early states start making the rounds in early states. Bush isn’t the only candidate with a strong interest in taking down Trump and it’s possible other big money groups unaffiliated with any campaign will target him in the coming weeks if donors get sufficiently worried.
Many of the campaigns are also holding back on major policy roll-outs as well in the hopes of making a splash closer to voting – Bush is set to unveil his tax reform plan next week and Walker says his will come in October. Primary voters often don’t start tuning in until at least Labor Day and often much later.
“They understand anything they say now will be treated as old news later so they want to hold onto their ammo,” Republican pollster Adrian Gray, who is unaligned, told msnbc. “If they have good stuff they’ve tested they may wait until October or November.”
Trump, who tweeted this week that he expected a deluge of super PAC attacks soon, knows what’s coming. For now, at least, he has the luxury of taunting Bush from a position of strength.
“I watched [Bush] this morning on television, and it was a little bit sad,” Trump said at a press conference on Thursday in New York announcing his loyalty pledge to the GOP. “He was supposed to win and he just doesn't have the energy.”
Kailani Koenig-Muenster contributed to this report.