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Jeb Bush in N.H. in April, 2015Jeb Bush served as Republican governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. A native of Texas, he is the son of one former president (George H.W. Bush) and the brother of another (George W. Bush.)As governor, he made education a focus of his administration, and he has been a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards. This new set of educational standards has been adopted by many states, but has also attracted broad criticism. Before entering politics, Bush worked as a real estate developer.

Bush in N.H.'s North Country: "I'm the Tortoise in the Race"

Josh Rogers for NHPR

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush campaigned in the North Country yesterday. Bush is the first major GOP candidate to log any time north of the notches. While there, the former Florida Governor spent the day casting himself as a politician willing to seek solutions to tough issues.

When Jeb Bush rolled up to Lahout’s ski shop in Littleton, his welcoming party, which featured three generations of Lahouts, was ready.

“Hi Governor. Herb Lahout.”

So was Bush.

“I’m surprised they don’t name the town after you. Every apartment, every warehouse……”

“They should name it after the bank.”

“Hello, sir”

“That’s my father. He served in the pacific.”

“I got that.”

Inside Bush worked the room methodically before he paused  to add his signature to a door jam covered in autographs, mostly of famous skiers. Bush said recent elections have taught him that a steady approach is the way to prevail in a presidential race.

“I mean, if you look at last time and the time before that, things ebb and flow, people move up, move down. I’m the tortoise in the race.”

A tortoise with deep campaign coffers and near universal name ID.  Littleton town budget chairman, Steve Kelly, said he was impressed after a quick chat with Bush, before noting  that one of Bush’s biggest strengths is also a major weakness.

“You know there is some baggage. There’s going to be  some people who just don’t want a third Bush, no matter how good he very well may be. It’s a tough deal but it’s a long process.”

But according to Jeb Bush himself, what distinguishes him  from rivals  -- and this is all to the good, he says --  is an upbeat approach.

“I hope to differentiate myself a bit by staying focused on a positive, optimistic message, because I actually think the world isn’t coming to an end. I think we are on the verge of the greatest time to be alive. If you have a mindset like that, then your policies can be presented in a different way, then as a prescription of how bad things are.’”

Throughout the day, Bush talked about solving big challenges. His calls to simplify the tax code, and to clean up Washington via things like term limits and banning elected from becoming lobbyists went down easy at every stop.

When Bush spoke about crimping entitlement spending, though, the reaction was more mixed. Hew Hampshire, and the North Country in particular, is rich in old people. And as the state’s poorest region, the North Country is full of voters who rely heavily on social security, Medicare and Medicaid.  

Speaking at the Lancaster VFW, Bush said the changes he supports -- like raising the retirement age and means testing social security – need to be handled carefully.

“It should be phased in –the retirement age -- and it should not have any impact on people who are already receiving the benefits. It’s, most people, this is the place where I think there is more consensus than, say what do you do with medicare.”

Bush says he’ll detail his plans on how to change entitlements sometime soon. But Democrats and union-affiliated advocacy groups aren’t waiting to go on the offensive. Jane Lang, with the New Hampshire alliance for the retired, confronted Bush during a town hall event in Gorham.

“Why are you always attacking the seniors?”

“Well, I’m not. Here’s what I said: we are going to have to reform our entitlement system. We have to.”

“It’s not an entitlement. I earned it, I paid it.”

Credit Josh Rogers for NHPR

“It’s an actuarially unsound healthcare system. Fifty trillion dollars of debt has been accrued and if we do nothing, that’s the burden that we are going to place on your children and grandchildren that you are concerned about, and so am I.”

Bush said he knew he’d be “demonized” for suggesting entitlement programs need to change, but said people who want to be president need to forge solutions on the tough issues.  Yet as Jeb Bush ended his day in in Gorham, he also indicated there may be the occasional issue that remains too hot to handle, like Northern Pass.

“Certainly a candidate for President better beware :  I’m not getting anywhere near that one, baby.”

Which may be easier said than done if Bush plans to do what he said he would yesterday --campaign often in the North Country.

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