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Bush Aims for Strong Showing in a State That's Not Always Been Kind to His Family

Josh Rogers/nhpr
Jeb Bush is hoping a victory in New Hampshire will steer him to the front of the Republican presidential race. But he has so far struggled to clear a path for himself in the state's primary campaign.

History suggests a strong finish in the New Hampshire primary – first or second place -- is mandatory for anyone who wants to become president. History also shows New Hampshire can be tough terrain for frontrunners, or candidates who enter the race perceived that way. Such are a few of the challenges facing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at this stage in the First in the Nation primary. 

In fact, from the moment Bush – son and brother to presidents -- entered this race there was the issue of expectations. Bush started at the head of the pack. He enjoyed near total name recognition, ties to many of his party’s elite and access to lots of money. But now, polls indicate Bush is just one of several candidates clumped well behind Donald Trump.

On Bush's last trip to New Hampshire, a college student in Salem put it to the candidate directly: “My question is: what is your strategy to bring yourself back up in the polls and be the frontrunner for 2016?”

“Patience, that’s my first part of the strategy," Bush responded. "The second part would be more patience, hard work, a hopeful optimistic message”

Bush has long said he plans a slow and steady trajectory for his campaign, and also called a top finish in New Hampshire crucial. That's looking more and more difficult. This state has always been tricky territory for the Bush family. A trouncing here by Ronald Reagan was the beginning of the end of George H.W. Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign. Eight years later, a win in New Hampshire helped the elder Bush defeat Bob Dole. And then there was George W. Bush’s 19-point loss to John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire primary.

George W. Bush’s candidacy obviously wasn’t crippled by a bad New Hampshire primary, but his younger brother’s could be.

“I wouldn’t say do or die but it’s close to that,” said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth.

She said none of the other early voting states -- Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada -- are places where Bush would seem to enjoy any clear advantage.

“I think he’s got a very tough road to hoe," Fowler said. "If he can stay in the game until the middle of March, then he might be okay, when he starts going to other states including his own, but there is a month there that is really hazardous to Jeb Bush.”

And as he navigates the first leg of that journey, here in New Hampshire, Jeb Bush will be doing it without help from some of his family’s most longstanding local political allies. Several have decided to back Ohio Gov. John Kasich, including Former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu, Concord attorney Tom Rath, former New Hampshire House Speaker Doug Scamman, and former executive councilor Ruth Griffin.

Credit NHPR Staff
Bush on a visit to NH's North Country last month.

Griffin, like many people on that list, has a long history with the Bush family: “Yes, isn’t that interesting. I did support George Herbert Walker Bush and I did support George W. Bush," she said. "But life goes on.”

Still, with five months until the first votes are cast in this election, this race will certainly change. But according to UNH political scientist Andy Smith, one thing will likely remain constant for Jeb Bush: the expectations game won’t let up.

“And I think that is going to hurt him throughout," Smith said. "Because the question is going to be, why isn’t he doing as good as we expected him to do?”

Expect another round of these questions after Wednesday night's GOP debate. 

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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