How Jeb Bush’s campaign ran off course before it even began

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from The Washington Post,

When asked to pinpoint where Jeb Bush’s presidential effort began running into trouble, many confidants utter a single word: Dallas.

Mike Murphy, Bush’s political alter ego, decided early on to hold regular senior staff meetings at an unusual location: a Hyatt hotel inside a terminal at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The idea was that it was a central and relatively inexpensive gathering place for a team scattered from Los Angeles, where Murphy lives, to Miami, where the would-be candidate resides.

It went fine at first but quickly became an awkward routine. Donors and other Republicans found the setup ungainly for a campaign-in-waiting that was supposed to be based in Florida.

The airport huddles were just one sign among many of a political operation going off course — disjointed in message and approach, torn between factions and more haphazard than it appeared on the surface. Bush’s first six months as an all-but-declared candidate have been defined by a series of miscalculations, leaving his standing considerably diminished ahead of his formal entry into the race on Monday.

The original premise of Bush’s candidacy — that a bold, fast start would scare off potential rivals and help him overcome the burden of his last name — has proved to be misguided.

His operation’s ability to rake in large checks also fueled inflated expectations. Supporters acknowledged this week that an allied super PAC was likely to fall short — perhaps substantially — of predictions that it would bring in $100 million in the first half of the year.

On the stump, Bush has stuck to his pledge not to shift to the right to win the nomination, but his middle-of-the-road positions on immigration and education have come off more as out of step with the base of his party than shrewdly pragmatic. His wonky question-and-answer exchanges with voters sometimes resemble college lectures rather than a disarming appeal for votes.

The troubles have eroded the image Bush has sought to present as the one Republican uniquely ready for the presidential stage. He has slipped in polls from presumed front-runner to one of several candidates jumbled toward the top of an increasingly crowded field.

“We’ve learned that the prospect of a big financial advantage is not going to keep people out of the race and that the notion of a new face is stronger than we might have thought,” Vin Weber, an outside Bush adviser, said in an interview. “That requires modest adjustments in strategy, not wholesale changes.”

Speaking Wednesday in Berlin during an overseas trip, Bush expressed confidence. “It’s June, for crying out loud, so we’ve got a long way to go,” he said, adding later: “I’m going to compete everywhere. If I’m a candidate, there’s no fifth-place, you know, kind of mentality in my mind.”

Forced to make up lost ground, Bush, his aides and his super-PAC allies are now preparing plans to attack the records and experience of his GOP competition.

“The Bushes have always underestimated the depth of the base’s dissatisfaction with their policies, and they take the criticism personally,” Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio host, said in an interview. “Jeb has to try to understand the reasons why conservatives have problems with him instead of crowing about how principled he is.”

Aides bristle at what they consider the media’s relentless focus on Bush’s personal and professional past. They say that out on the campaign trail, in visits to more than a dozen states, he has been doing exactly what he should.

“Interacting with people on the road who deal with real issues . . . that’s what brings true joy to Jeb,” Sally Bradshaw, a longtime consultant, said in a recent e-mail.

Despite those efforts, some recent surveys put Bush in a five-way tie for the lead. Recent polls touted by his advisers give him a wide lead in New Hampshire, while others taken nationally and in the early states put him behind Rubio and Walker.

Sensing Bush’s vulnerabilities, Ohio Gov. John Kasich this week hired two experienced GOP operatives as he prepares to jump into the contest and make a play for the same donors Bush has already wooed.

“I didn’t think I was going to be back up here again, because frankly I thought Jeb was just going to suck all the air out of the room, and it just hasn’t happened,” Kasich told New Hampshire business leaders last week.

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