If George W Bush comes out of retirement to hit the campaign trail for his brother, Jeb, in the crucial early voting state of South Carolina, he could make all the difference, according to local political operatives and insiders.
All the difference between Jeb Bush coming in sixth in the state’s Republican presidential primary in February and … fourth, maybe?
So seemingly uphill is the battle that Jeb Bush faces in the Palmetto state, the third state to vote for president next year, that even an appearance by his brother, George W, who is still popular with Republicans across the country, may barely move the needle, said one senior political operative who spoke on condition of anonymity owing to ongoing work with multiple campaigns.
“Bush is distinctly second-tier right now,” the operative said. “I follow thousands of people on Facebook, social media. I don’t literally see any Bush supporters. There are a couple elected officials. But I don’t know who is supporting Jeb Bush in the grassroots. People that are, you know, the five- to 10,000 top Republicans in the state – I don’t know who’s supporting Jeb Bush. I don’t see those people. It’s shocking.”
The notion that George W Bush, who until now has appeared at private fundraisers for his brother but not at public events, might make a dramatic return to the stump after eight years of political near-invisibility was fueled by a New York Times story published on Sunday quoting multiple state officials speculating on the matter.
“I thought the Times story was curiously timed,” the senior political operative said. “I’m not quite sure [what] the purpose [is] of setting the expectation that the former president would be in-state. I guess there’s some internal explanation, maybe a poll or something they had seen.”
Jeb Bush backers in South Carolina rejected the notion that the erstwhile establishment pick had fallen out of contention, saying that while Bush may not be leading at the moment, in time he would rise to the top.
“You’re going to see a swing in support toward Jeb,” said Samuel Rivers Jr, a Republican representative in the South Carolinastatehouse since 2013. “It’s just a matter of time. I just don’t see South Carolina going to someone who has not served in political office. I just don’t see that happening.
“At the end of the day, we have always looked to experience and qualifications. I strongly believe that once Jeb gets his record out there, that Republicans will take notice and they will see that he is the strongest and the best candidate.”
Multiple political insiders in South Carolina, however, described the race for Republican support in the state as shaping up significantly in favor of the previously unelected candidates who are leading the GOP pack.
The notion that South Carolina is having an anti-establishment moment is reflected in the polling so far in the state, sparse as it may be, which finds Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina leading the pack. Cruz is a first-term senator; none of the other three has ever held elected office.
Lingering ambivalence about the Bush name could compound unusually strong anti-establishment sentiment among voters to make the going more difficult for Jeb Bush, analysts said.
Former South Carolina governor Jim Hodges, a Democrat, spoke on the phone on his way out the door on Tuesday morning to a Red Cross site in Columbia, the state capital, which, like other cities, was devastated by record rainfall and flooding at the weekend.
“I think there’s no doubt that the Bush campaign is in trouble right now, and their best strategy is to hope that they make the playoffs later on,” Hodges said.
As for deploying George W, “that’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s not particularly helpful in the general election. And I’m not so sure that endorsements from establishment party figures are all that helpful in this cycle, particularly in a state like South Carolina, where the outsiders are doing unusually well.”
Like others, Hodges noted that the mood this year in South Carolina was adamantly “throw the bums out” – a sentiment that appeared to extend to the retired bums’ brothers.
“This is a cycle that, particularly on the Republican side, the level of anger toward establishment party figures is substantial,” Hodges said. “They could trot out every Republican party figure that they could to endorse Bush here, who might be popular with the Republican base, but I don’t think it’s going to make a big deal in the end.”
A 52% majority of Americans told pollsters this summer that they viewed George W Bush favorably, although he is not as popular a figure as his father, former president George HW Bush, or as former president Bill Clinton, both of whom poll at higher than 60% favorability.
South Carolina delivered George W Bush a crucial Republican primary win in 2000 over John McCain, who weeks earlier had won theNew Hampshire primary. The Bush campaign was accused at the time of using underhand tactics to win, including push-polling and distributing flyers saying that McCain had secretly fathered an African American child.
Rivers said that stores of goodwill for George W Bush remained in the state, but that Jeb Bush could stand alone on the strength of his record.
“The man’s record speaks for himself,” Rivers said. “There’s a passage in the scriptures that says, ‘Let the work that I do speak for me.’
“And Jeb’s record speaks for him.”