Bedford, N.H. — Jeb Bush had a town-hall-meeting style campaign event here last night. I was there and have some observations:
Don't write him off yet. After Scott Walker dropped out, and following Governor Bush's poor debate performances and declines in the polls, some have suggested that Mr. Bush should be the next Republican presidential candidate to end his campaign. The politician I saw last night didn't look like he was running on fumes, or about to quit. He looked relaxed, confident, and poised. He was solid on substance and strong in his presentation. If he could only be as good in the televised debates as he is in that town hall format, he'd be doing better in the polls. Asked about those polls by someone at the town hall, he replied that a majority of New Hampshire voters make up their minds only in the last week before the primary. "This is a long haul race," he said.
He can't escape that family and last name. Even though the campaign stickers and signs just say "Jeb!," Mr. Bush can't go anywhere without confronting the legacies of his president father and president brother. To one questioner wearing a Yale shirt, Jeb joked, "Is that a community college?" The questioner replied that he had gone to school with Jeb's brother. Another questioner asked about government spending increases in George W. Bush's administration, including the Medicare prescription drug plan. Jeb Bush replied that the Medicare prescription drug plan was "actually quite successful," but "there's no offset and there should have been." "My brother didn't veto bills," Jeb Bush acknowledged. A third questioner recounted sitting on a tractor at a Caterpillar factory in Illinois during a visit by President George W. Bush. She said President Bush worried that she was going to fall off, and said he would have done his best to catch her. Call it the First Law of Conflation of All Bushes. Voters can't seem to see Jeb without remembering his brother and father. That can work to his advantage or disadvantage, but it's unavoidable.
He's very religious. Mr. Bush, in his answers, kept finding his way back to his Catholic Christian faith, even when the question did not directly address it. In an exchange with a Syrian-American whose voice broke as she spoke of her 14 family members who had fled, the governor spoke about his own Iraqi Christian daughter-in-law and observed, "There is no Mass in Mosul anymore." Asked later by reporters about American policy toward Syrian refugees, he said, "I would take every Christian that's being persecuted." Asked about his relations with his fellow Floridian and fellow Catholic Marco Rubio, who is a competitor in some sense for the role of "establishment," electable non-Trump candidate of Republican donors, Mr. Bush replied, in part, "every debate we have it turns out we're going to the same church to pray at noon." Asked by a questioner in Spanish about Pope Francis's visit, Mr. Bush declined the opportunity to differ with or criticize the pope on economic issues. "His trip was phenomenal and it was very moving," said Mr. Bush, who said that he and his wife had seen the pope in Washington.
He's also pretty conservative. Bush says he wants to increase military spending. He wants a balanced budget amendment. He wants civil service reform to make it easier to "fire somebody for incompetence." He's got anecdotes about government inefficiency, like the $1.7 billion it cost to build a veterans hospital in Aurora, Colo., where the construction budget was originally $600 million. Talking about reductions in tax rates and the criticism that they might reduce government revenue, Mr. Bush said, "Don't worry about government. This is not their money to start with....The government is the parasite. We are the host. If we're healthy, they're healthy." He said he wants Israel to have the most sophisticated weapons and he wants "no gap" between America and Israel. He even gently criticized the Federal Reserve: "That's one of the problems with our monetary policy. It's great for people that are borrowing. It's not so great for people that are saving."
He's sharpening the contrast with Rubio and Trump. Senator Rubio has been missing votes to campaign for president. "I think if they miss a vote, there should be a deduction in pay," Mr. Bush said. He didn't answer a shouted question about whether he thinks Mr. Rubio should quit the Senate to pursue running for president full time. No one asked whether, as a Florida resident and thus a constituent of Senator Rubio, he feels adequately represented, though that is a question that may come at some point down the line. Mr. Bush also drew a contrast with Donald Trump on trade: "There are some in our party that want to create tariffs...create a trade war." He also criticized Mr. Trump's style. "If you're looking for the big guy on the stage talking in the first person singular, 'I my my me me me,' I'm not your man," Mr. Bush said, characterizing Mr. Trump—without naming him—as "a trash talker...pounding my chest and talking about how great I am."