NASHUA, N.H. — Jeb Bush isn’t going to take it anymore.
In a performance so animated it almost justified the exclamation point in his logo, the onetime Republican frontrunner entertained and occasionally antagonized the roughly 200 people who showed up to see him here just two days before the New Hampshire primary. And in the process he attacked his various rivals and adversaries from the “secret squirrel committee” of pundits who say he can’t win to, of course, Donald Trump, the “real loser” in Bush’s estimation.
Also feeling Bush’s wrath: a loud reporter doing a TV hit during his speech and a man who didn’t care much for Bush’s empathy for undocumented immigrants.
It was a much different than Bush than the nervous, patrician former governor we’ve seen in debates all these months. The pleading, “please clap” Jeb we saw last week in a viral video was nowhere in sight.
He’s exasperated, that’s for sure. Even as he talked about vague, moderate-friendly concepts like “forging consensus,” there was frustration in his voice. But the crowd was receptive to the pitch, and after he got a standing ovation for promising that, if elected, he would not blame his problems on President Obama, he seemed freed to begin a full-throated assault on Trump, Bush enemy No. 1.
He began by repeatedly calling the mogul “weak” for disparaging women, Hispanics, POWs, etc. And the crowd, in the subdued way of an older-skewing New England audience, ate it up.
“Donald Trump, you’re the loser!” he concluded with all the angry energy of a nerdy, hormonal student yelling at an absent bully. It seemed cathartic.
Then he took out time to mark the man many in Jeb-land see as a traitor, mocking Marco Rubio’s embarrassing repetition of a talking point at Saturday’s debate. Bush would be unable to repeat the same line so many times, he explained with mock humility, because he’s too “intellectually curious,” too self-questioning, and always thinking to reliably stay on message.
Just then, a journalist loudly doing an interview in the back of the cramped elementary school gymnasium became Bush's next target. “Why is he yelling while I’m speaking?” he shouted to applause. The reporter quickly wrapped up his hit.
Even some of the participants in a post-speech Q&A session found themselves on the wrong end of Jeb’s newly rediscovered temper, particularly one who didn’t like Bush’s description of illegal immigration as an “act of love.”
The questioner started off by attributing the “slow start” to Bush’s campaign to his “politically incorrect” depiction of undocumented border-crossing.
“That’s not politically correct,” a visibly annoyed Jeb shot back, interrupting the questioner. “You don’t think that 99 percent of the people who come to this country are just trying to put food on the table for their families?”
The questioner tried again. “Do you believe in the rule of law –"
“Yeah, I do,” Bush snapped.
The candidate then acknowledged that illegal immigration is a problem while defending migrants’ motives. “They’re coming here because they want to put food on the table for their families, and if you think that’s politically correct you haven’t been following my life. That’s totally politically incorrect right now! The fact that I would say something that’s totally obvious to people who know anything about the immigrant experience but incurs the wrath of people who are angry about this is politically incorrect.”
Bush’s energy and urgency are understandable. With less than two days before voting starts in New Hampshire, he’s fighting for his political life. And while he likely has enough cash to keep him in the primaries even if he finishes poorly here, the calls for him to drop out will become deafening if he doesn’t finish in the top three.
Even Lindsey Graham, who’s now utilizing his comedic chops as Bush’s warm-up act (sample joke, referring to a Medal of Honor winner in attendance today: “He spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton—three with John McCain—that’s real torture”), has said Bush was all but finished if he doesn’t come out ahead of Rubio on Tuesday.
What Bush needs is a miracle, and he knows it. But he just might get one. New Hampshire polling is notoriously inaccurate, and in recent weeks he’s placed everywhere from a strong second to a distant sixth place. And if he can somehow defy conventional wisdom and finish with a strong showing in the top three, all the gut-punches he’s endured since last summer will suddenly have been worth it. Believe it or not, as strange as it may seem, come next week we might—might—be talking about him like he’s a real candidate again.
Or that’s what Bush must be thinking, at least.
“I trust you a lot more than the pundits and the observers who are all about process,” Bush said at the end of his speech. “Because you care about the things that are really important for our future. I trust you.”