HUDSON, N.H. — Watch Jeb Bush in action taking questions from New Hampshire voters at a town hall-style campaign event here, and it becomes clear pretty quickly why he's considered a first-tier candidate, maybe even the front-runner, at this stage of the Republican presidential campaign.
The campaign has the little things down. The formal portion of the event takes precisely an hour, and the candidate leaves the event as scheduled at exactly 8 p.m. The sound system works perfectly. As voters leave the event, there's a table with stacks of bright white t-shirts, in a variety of sizes, with the red "Jeb!" logo. When someone asks if they are for sale, the person staffing the table replies with the Granite State motto —"Live Free or Die." Other campaigns sell tchotchkes and apparel to make money; the Jeb Bush campaign is well funded enough to give the gear away to build goodwill.
The candidate himself is no slouch, either. No teleprompter, podium, or formal text for Jeb Bush, who, even on a night the Red Sox are playing, draws a crowd of more than 150 people to a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in this southern New Hampshire town near the city of Nashua and the Massachusetts border.
Bush, the former governor of Florida, shirt open at the collar and sleeves rolled up, portrays himself in his opening remarks as a kind of fix-it-man who can repair a Washington that is "incompetent and corrupt."
"We can grow at 4% instead of this anemic new normal of 2%," he says, a theme he returns to again and again throughout the hour. He speaks of fixing "how we tax," "how we regulate" and "a broken immigration system," and of unleashing a domestic "energy revolution."
He talks about his record as governor of Florida, which, like New Hampshire, had no income tax. "I cut taxes every year," he says. "Cutting $19 billion of taxes in eight years took some doing."
"We took on the teachers union and we won," he says. "We took on the trial bar and we won." Florida ended the eight years with 13,000 fewer government workers, but 1.3 million more workers in the private sector, he says.
He criticizes the Obama administration for its handling of veterans hospitals and for "sheer incompetence" in allowing the Office of Personnel Management's computer system to be breached by Chinese hackers. He calls for the firing of the director of the Office of Personnel Management, a former Obama campaign official, describing her as a "political hack."
He says Obama's foreign policy also needs fixing. He faults Obama for "vacillation" and "weakness." Mr. Bush outlines an alternative approach of "peace through strength" — reversing the military spending cutbacks of the "sequester," reengaging with the world, and restoring relations with allies such as Israel and Canada alienated by Mr. Obama. He's dismissive of concern that antiterrorism programs have infringed on the civil liberties of Americans, insisting, "our government is keeping us safe and free" and warning, "Islamic terrorism is not going away."
"I'm going to campaign in places where Republicans haven't been seen in a while," Mr. Bush says, promising "a hopeful, optimistic message" delivered "in the Latino communities across this country," perhaps even "in Spanish and English," an idea that was greeted with applause by the crowd.
He takes 12 questions from the crowd. The first is about a nuclear deal with Iran. "I'm very pessimistic about the deal that I have been reading about," Mr. Bush says. "There's questions about verification, there's questions about military intent." He warns, "this will perpetuate the regime and its brutality inside the country. I don't see this as a good deal." He says he'd seek to reestablish sanctions on Iran and "reengage the right way" that would lead to "freedom for their own people" and an Iran that is less of a regional threat.
The second question asks what Bush's top priorities would be in the first four months of his administration and how he'd get congressional support. Mr. Bush says he'd focus on regulation, reversing some of Obama's executive orders, including actions of the Environmental Protection Agency and what he says are unconstitutional measures loosening immigration enforcement. He also speaks of "first and foremost establishing a stronger relationship with Israel because it's been torn asunder." And he says he'd "interact with people that don't agree with me...creating a little bit of civility" and opening the way to progress on energy and immigration policy.
A third questioner asks about the environmental threat posed by a proposed oil or gas pipeline in New Hampshire. Mr. Bush calls it a local or regional decision best sorted out not in Washington but at the state level.
The fourth question is about Common Core education standards — along with immigration, a point where some Republicans fault Mr. Bush. "What I'm for is higher standards," Mr. Bush replies. "Whether they are common to me is not as important." He talks about his education record in Florida, eliminating social promotion in third grade and allowing private school choice.
The next question asks why the federal government is involved in education at all. Mr. Bush runs through federal education spending — "Title I," "IDEA," "Head Start," as well as the $1.2 trillion "disaster" of student loans for higher education. He says he is less concerned with whether to get rid of the education department and more concerned with shifting the relationship of the federal government on the issue "from dictator" to "catalyst for reform." George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law goes unmentioned.
The next question is about protecting the environment for future generations. Mr. Bush replies by touting his restoration of the Everglades and calling commitment to the environment "a conservative value." He also speaks of the need to balance it with economic interests. "The best way to protect the environment is to grow the economy," he says.
The next question is about illegal immigrants and the border. "My wife's from Mexico, I love her dearly," Mr. Bush replies. He goes on with a lengthy response — drones and a "virtual wall" for border security, "penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants," eliminating "sanctuary cities" by threatening to cut off federal law enforcement funding to cities like San Francisco that don't enforce immigration law, a guest worker program to make it easier for farm workers to come legally, immigration law changes to narrow "family petitioning" so that adult parents and adult siblings can't come over in "chain migration," eliminate country quotas and the lottery, and "make immigration an economic driver." And then "provide a path to legalized status — not citizenship" for those here now illegally. That would involve a provisional work permit, paying a fine, working, and earning legal status — "not amnesty," but a "fair, realistic deal." At the end of the answer, he says, "I want to win elections," which seemed to me a pretty good summing up of the problem with his answer — it seems crafted to respond to political reality instead of a principle such as the human right to migration or even a pragmatic policy view such as more immigrants are pro-growth. I wish Mr. Bush went even further toward the pro-immigration side of this one. Hillary Clinton criticized him this week for not supporting a path to citizenship for illegals.
The next question asks about the Islamic State, ISIL or ISIS. On Iraq, Mr. Bush credits the "political courage of my brother," saying "the surge worked." "The answer is to reengage in Iraq," he says. "We also ought to arm the Kurds."
The next question asks about affordable housing. Mr. Bush says government is making housing more expensive, and says one reason people are moving to Florida and Texas is for cheaper housing. He doesn't mention the Federal Reserve or the dollar. "I honestly believe we can grow at 4%," he says, suggesting a strong economy would make it easier for families to purchase homes.
The next question is about debt. "The first thing we have to do — and I don't want to sound like a broken record — is grow at 4%," Bush says. "I think we need to challenge everything that Washington does," he says. "The one big thing that has to be reformed is our entitlement system." He says he wouldn't touch benefits for current recipients. For those younger workers, though, he'd "gradually raise the retirement age" and "reform by means-testing," that is, reduce the benefits formula for those with higher income.
A final question asks why America doesn't bomb ISIS the way George H.W. Bush's generation bombed Hiroshima and Dresden. Bush responds by pointing out that his father also led Operation Desert Storm, where America formed a large coalition, achieved a limited objective, and then left. A natural follow-up would have been whether he thought his father was right to leave Saddam Hussein in power with helicopters to suppress Iraqi opposition — a question George W. Bush addresses in his book 41.
In a brief question and answer session with the press following the event, Jeb Bush somewhat testily clarifies a remark he made earlier in the day to the effect that America needed to work more hours. "You can take it outta context all you want," he says, explaining he was talking about ObamaCare giving employers an incentive to hire part-time rather than full-time workers. "Workforce participation rates are low," he says.
Bottom line? Bush seems to have upped his game since the last time I saw him in person, which was in 2014 at the Manhattan Institute's Alexander Hamilton dinner. One can quarrel with individual answers, or predict that once in office Mr. Bush will do something different than what he says on the campaign trail. "Bush fatigue" is a factor for voters disappointed by Jeb's brother or father. It's still early. But a well financed campaign centered on economic growth and on peace through strength, led by a candidate who amassed an impressive conservative record as popular governor of a large swing state, is not something anyone — not Hillary Clinton, not Scott Walker, not Marco Rubio or Donald Trump or Rand Paul — should underestimate.