SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jeb Bush worked his way through the dim hallway of an Arizona resort for hours, shuttling from room to room and meeting with dozens of Republican officials, many for the first time.
He was in need of a political reset.
For days, he had offered confusing answers to questions about the war in Iraq. He had disappointed Republicans in Iowa, the leadoff state in the nomination chase. And, for a moment, he had forgotten he wasn’t yet a 2016 presidential candidate.
Only weeks earlier, donors willing to give millions to put him in the White House were coming to see him at an opulent Miami Beach hotel.
Now it was Bush seeking the private gatherings, on the sidelines of a Republican National Committee meeting.
The former Florida governor was trying to recover from what was undeniably his worst week in politics since announcing he was considering a run for the White House.
“It’s the one thing you have to learn in a campaign,” said Matt Borges, the Ohio Republican Party chairman, as he emerged from a private session. “How to fall down and get up.”
Interviews with dozens of RNC members, Bush donors, early state supporters and strategists show:
— concerns with his skills as a campaigner.
— unease that his designation as a front-runner has yet to materialize in polls.
— worries that while they know the Bush name, they don’t yet know this Bush outside of Florida.
“In this cycle, there’s less and less off-Broadway. And for Jeb Bush, there’s no off-Broadway,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
But none of the Republicans interviewed by The Associated Press said Bush had been irreparably damaged.
His name recognition and fundraising operation make him a force in the GOP contest.
“But I don’t know anybody who ever said in this cycle there’s an untouchable front-runner,” said Ron Kaufman, a Bush supporter who helped arrange some of the meetings in Arizona.
Bush’s tough week began with a Fox News interview that included a question about the Iraq war begun by his brother.
When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, he cited intelligence that showed the country had weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence later was found to be faulty, and no such weapons were uncovered.
Over the course of 72 hours, Jeb Bush said he would have ordered the invasion, based on the intelligence presented at the time; claimed he misunderstood the interviewer’s question; then said he would have done something different but refused to say what that might be.
On Thursday, he finally answered the original question. “If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions, knowing what we know now, what would you have done? I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq,” he said.
The episode demonstrates Bush’s determination to chart his own path in a family of presidents and avoid publicly judging the policies his father and brother pursued.
“I’m not going to go out of my way to say that my brother did this wrong or my dad did this wrong,” Bush said this past week. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Bush’s answers about Iraq prompted a wave of commentary from his likely Republican rivals, each eager to show how they’re different with a not-yet-a-candidate still perceived by many as an early front-runner.
“If we don’t learn the lesson in Iraq, you don’t understand the lessons that we should learn also from Libya and Syria,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said in an interview with the AP.
Bush’s response also fueled Democrats’ preferred narrative of the former Florida governor: that he’s an apologist for a brother who is viewed favourably by less than a third of Americans six years after leaving office. Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, who fought in Iraq and criticizes the war, said reports that Bush considers his older brother an adviser on Middle East issues “makes me question even more if he has the judgment to be president.”
Amid all the talk about Iraq, Bush also slipped up for a moment about his candidacy. He’s not yet formally declared his intention to run for president, and saying he’s still thinking about it keeps Bush on the right side of campaign finance rules. Yet after a town hall-style meeting in Nevada on Wednesday, Bush said, “I’m running for president in 2016,” before quickly catching himself, noting, “if I run.”
Kaufman and other Bush supporters concede Bush had a challenging week, comparing his tight knit but still growing political operation to a baseball team in spring training. While Bush has a small number of experienced advisers, his decision to put off his formal entry into the campaign until at least June has left them unable to mobilize quickly and respond to problems.
But perhaps more than anything, Bush’s week underscored a quiet concern among some Republicans about a candidate who last ran for office 13 years ago: He’s rusty.
“He hasn’t been a candidate for anything for years,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire-based Republican who advised former President George W. Bush.
By Saturday, Bush was able to joke about the issue, which was missing earlier in the week, a sign of a candidate recovering from a blunder. Told by a voter at a town hall in Iowa he hadn’t slipped up at all in the Fox News interview, Bush fessed up with a line that drew laughs.
“I misstepped, for sure. I answered a question that wasn’t asked. That’s just what happened,” Bush said, shrugging. “It was a great answer, by the way. But it wasn’t to the question that was asked.”
While Bush’s family name and cadre of wealthy donors fuel the perception he is a front-runner for the nomination, early polling suggests voters in key states aren’t buying into the narrative. But polls this early in a presidential campaign are poor predictors of eventual outcomes, and Bush hopes to regain his stride during a weekend trip to Iowa and stops next week in New Hampshire, where he’ll meet privately with GOP leaders as he did in Arizona.
There is clearly an appetite to hear from Bush. Donna Cain, an RNC committeewoman from Oregon, was among those who met with him Thursday night at the party’s spring meeting. “It would have been nice had it been longer,” she said.
And in Iowa, there’s hope that he’ll reconsider his decision — announced this past week — to skip the state party’s August straw poll to attend a conservative forum in Georgia.
“He’s got to do something to show people he’s taking Iowa seriously,” said David Oman, a Des Moines Republican who is leaning toward supporting Bush.
Back in the Arizona hotel hallway, Delaware GOP chairman Charlie Copeland left his first face-to-face meeting with Bush impressed but said it was far too early to predict the presidential prospect’s ultimate fate.
“Nobody wades into a presidential campaign thinking’s it’s going to be easy,” Copeland said as Bush slipped into another meeting room behind him. “We’ll see what happens.”