In a damp parking lot outside Pittsburgh, an increasingly exasperated Jeb Bush is trying to claw his way back into the race for the White House with a simple message: it’s time for the grownups to take charge.
“Where’s the marching band, for crying out loud?” the former Florida governor asks a small crowd of energy workers who he believes, like him, deserve some more respect from America.
“As president I would approve the XL [oil] pipeline for crying out loud,” he adds, repeating what is fast becoming a catchphrase, not just for his scornful view of environmentalists who oppose its construction but a political world where very little has gone as planned.
Yet as Bush throws everything he has this week at boosting his moribund poll numbers – from announcing dozens of party endorsements, to buying airtime for political ads and prowling television studios like never before – some palpable question marks are beginning to hang over campaign stops like this.
What if the 62-year-old brother of George W and son of George HW is not the best mainstream Republican to reel in anti-establishment rivals such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina? What if his roughly $130m in donations from rich backers can’t compensate for a lack of enthusiasm among voters? What if he does not emerge as the party’s designated grownup?
Down in the warmer climes of Florida, there was another candidate who, despite being the youngest in the race, cast himself this week as a viable alternative: Marco Rubio, Bush’s friend and longtime ally.
Speaking at a retirement community in his home state, the 44-year-old senator told an overflow crowd of people twice his age that the issues confronting the nation could not be resolved by leaders of the past. The time had come, Rubio said, to turn the page.
The forward-facing, optimistic pitch has been central to Rubio’s candidacy since he announced his run for president in April, despite being urged by some to stay in the Senate and wait his turn. But it has grown sharper in recent weeks, as the candidate looks to capitalise on a steady uptick in his campaign.
And with Scott Walker’s departure from the race last week, top party officials and donors are also giving Rubio an even closer look. The senator, who spent most of the summer quietly campaigning with a focus on fundraising, has notably benefited from standout performances in the first two debates and staying out of the Trump sideshow that bogged down Bush and pushed Walker into a fatal, downward spiral.
Unlike Bush, Rubio’s modest beginnings, as the son of a bartender and a maid, have been an integral part of his story. With four kids of his own, the senator often invokes his middle-class background on the campaign trail – an asset his backers believe makes him uniquely positioned to resonate with voters in a country still struggling economically.
“That story that he talks about is a real story, it’s not concocted,” Bernie Navarro, a close friend who helps with Rubio’s fundraising, said. “It’s weaved into his DNA. He’s been there – he knows what it is to balance his checkbook, and I think that drives him.”
Also in contrast to Bush, whose poll rating has steadily collapsed from 17.8% in July to an average of little over 7% in the last three surveys, Rubio has begun to gain momentum in recent weeks – narrowly overtaking Bush nationally and slowly beginning to catch the three anti-establishment frontrunners who have dominated since the summer.
Amid a growing sense that there may only be room for one establishment favourite come the first primary voting in February, the two former Floridaallies have also broken away from their reluctance to criticize one another with some none too subtle digs in recent days.
“I’m a proven leader,” Bush told CNN when asked why voters should favour him over the younger senator. “I disrupted the old order in [the state capital]Tallahassee. I relied on people like Marco Rubio and many others to follow my leadership and we moved the needle.”
Rubio has declined to go after Bush, often referred to as his mentor, when pressed directly on their joint presence in the race. “Jeb is my friend,” he told reporters in Florida on Monday.
But inherent in the themes of Rubio’s campaign is a rejection of the past – an argument that extends beyond Hillary Clinton to also encompass Bush’s candidacy. As the senator put it himself in his announcement speech in April: “Yesterday is over.”
“I honestly believe our party and our country need to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership with new ideas to guide us toward the 21st century,” he added pointedly on Monday.
And the departure of Walker – a Wisconsin governor who proved unready for the national stage – has prompted a race between Rubio and Bush to capture the support of his money men.
Anthony Scaramucci, a New York hedge fund manager who was Walker’s national finance co-chairman, was poached on Tuesday to join Bush’s finance committee instead. But several more donors and so-called “bundlers”, who gather contributions from wealthy friends, went Rubio’s way.
Bush denies reports that his own donors are getting jittery about his falling poll numbers, which he insists are still too early in the election cycle to worry about much.
“There are a lot of people kicking the tire right now, a lot of anger, a lot of angst,” he told MSNBC in one of several TV appearances on Thursday. “They are scratching their heads, saying ‘what’s going on’ so they are latching on to the people who are the most outsider.”
Like Clinton, Bush has also started avoiding more unscripted encounters with the press. His campaign refused to allow journalists to pose questions after the event in Pittsburgh, for example, perhaps following a series of racial gaffes that undermined his attempts to be seen as a kinder, more multicultural, face of the party.
Instead, the former governor is renewing his focus this week on the two clear areas of advantage over Rubio: ad spending and connections.
As evidence of his family’s support among older, more established, political activists, Bush has been in overdrive in recent days, announcing 25 endorsements in Iowa, the backing of 20 of Florida’s 26 state senators and eight of the state’s former speakers, plus five senior backers inMassachusetts, including two former governors.
Bush has also provided a taste of how he might spend some of the $100m he has raised from Super Pac donors, filming a series of slick ads (currently paid for by the campaign) that paint him as the business-friendly face of grownup America.
Rubio has also reserved millions worth of advertising time this autumn, as he seeks to boost his name recognition and build a stronger presence in the early states. And while he lacks the perks in resources of being a Bush, the senator has looked to turn his lack of wealth into a bonus.
Addressing voters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, Rubio repeatedly uttered the words “paycheck to paycheck” to describe not only his own upbringing but also the plight of many Americans today. “Imagine if you weren’t born rich or famous,” he said, adding later that his goal was to ensure that the next generation is not “trapped into the circumstances of their birth”.
And then there was the generational contrast that has become a staple of Rubio’s stump speech while traversing the early voting states that will play the biggest hand in choosing the eventual nominee.
“We cannot simply promote the next person in line or the most familiar name,” Rubio said. “If we keep electing the same people with the same names, many of these issues that trouble us we will not be able to fix.”
It’s a point of distinction that has served Rubio well during his meteoric rise in politics. Whether he was seeking the local office of West Miamicommissioner, or running for the Florida House at the age of 28, someone would invariably be standing in the way.
This time that obstacle is Bush, who moved early in December to form an exploratory committee for president designed to clear the field. But Rubio has never been one to wait in line, even when the odds are stacked against him.
The most notable comparison: when he ran for the Senate seat he now holds, an example Rubio and his supporters have held up amid a crowded presidential contest to telegraph that he has been here before.
The political establishment had lined up behind then governor Charlie Crist, a Republican who had angered grassroots conservatives by embracing Barack Obama’s stimulus package and looking to keep to the middle ground in the election year that ushered the Tea Party wave into Congress.
Rubio saw an opening to challenge Crist in the Senate race, but found little support in terms of endorsements or the kind of campaign war chest his opponent had acquired. His poll numbers were so low that he and his backers called themselves “the 3% club”.
“People thought Marco was crazy to run against Crist,” said Jeanette Nuñez, a Florida state representative and friend of Rubio and his wife. “I think people underestimated him, they regretted it, and I think people are falling in the same trap this time around.”
The presidential contest, of course, is a far cry from a statewide election, and Bush remains well poised to survive the ebbs and flows with a massive fundraising haul and campaign apparatus.
But after Walker’s campaign implosion showed that Super Pac money alone cannot compensate for a lack of buzz among supporters, Bush’s strategy may prove the ultimate test of whether the one-time establishment favourite can strong-arm himself back into the lead. If he fails, he just might be traded in for a newer, younger, model.