Manchester, NH – Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is off to crucial New Hampshire on Thursday for two town halls amid an intensifying feud with GOP front-runner Donald Trump and a disappointing month in the polls.
A strong performance in the Granite State is an essential first step along Bush’s path to the nomination given his challenges in first caucus state Iowa, where GOP voters are more socially conservative and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker benefits from regional ties. But before he can worry about threats like Walker, he has to deal with Trump, who has dominated the field for two months in New Hampshire and beyond.
Related: Trump, Bush feud intensifies
In recent weeks, Trump has poked Bush mercilessly, calling him “low energy” and a “puppet” of big donors, while dragging his rival into an unwanted discussion of birthright citizenship in which Bush faced tough questions over his use of the term “anchor baby.”
Trump had already been trolling Bush – among many other candidates -- for months. What’s new this week is that Bush has embarked on a major campaign to fight back. On Monday, the Bush camp labeled Trump “soft on crime” based on his support for legalizing drugs and donations to Democrats. On Tuesday his campaign put out a video highlighting Trump’s previous pro-choice politics and support for single-payer health care. On Wednesday, they posted a “quiz” on Trump’s positions that, among other things, mocked his reported germaphobia and unease shaking hands.
“This is not a guy who’s a conservative and using his own words is not a mischaracterization, they came from his own mouth,” Bush said at an event in Miami on Tuesday.
It was clear from his remarks that Trump’s unrestrained attacks were grating his nerves.
“He personalizes everything,” Bush told reporters in Spanish, according to the Washington Post. “If you’re not totally in agreement with him, you’re an idiot, or stupid, or you don’t have energy or 'blah blah blah.'"
Recent surveys in New Hampshire have not been encouraging. Bush led several state polls after his announcement, but Trump has since jumped to the top in a state where a significant number of Republicans identified him as their first choice even before his post-announcement surge.
Some recent polls have also shown Bush tied or eclipsed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another swing state governor emphasizing results over fealty to conservative demands. Kasich’s bump is influenced in part by heavy early advertising from outside groups supportive of his campaign, but he’s also scored some impressive state endorsements like former Sen. John E. Sununu and former Attorney General Thomas Rath.
An average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics puts Trump at 28.7% support, Kasich at 12.7% and Bush in third at 9%.