Ridge quickly corrected his mistake: "Uh, Jeb Bush, Jeb!" But despite the Bush campaign's early efforts to brand Jeb as his own man — no "Bush" on the "Jeb!" signs, no last name on the 47-page policy packet voters get when they walk in the door — there has been no escaping the fact that Jeb Bush is his father's son and W.'s brother, for better and for worse. In New Hampshire, 90 miles away from the Bush family's Kennebunkport compound, being a Bush has been a plus at some points and a minus at others during the five previous times a Bush has been on the presidential ballot. George Bush lost the state's GOP primary in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, only to come back and win the Republican primary in 1998 and 1992. Similarly, George W. Bush lost the state to John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" in 2000 before coming back and winning easily in 2004.
Now Jeb needs a strong showing here to breathe life back into his gasping candidacy — and did have a strong showing at Saturday night's debate. He came in sixth in Iowa with 2.8 percent of the vote, even behind Rand Paul who dropped out the next day. He's been polling somewhere between fourth and sixth place here in New Hampshire recently, with his protégé Marco Rubio coming up fast on Donald Trump, the man who has spent much of his candidacy emasculating Jeb as a low-energy momma's boy.
But when supporters at his Bedford town hall detailed their reasons for considering a vote for Jeb, praise for his family invariably came up as a positive in their answers. "I think he has the most unique experience of any of the candidates," said Paul Schibbelhute, an engineer from Nashua. "How often do you have an opportunity to have a father and a brother who are presidents?"
When a young woman stood to ask a question of Jeb, she began by talking about the other Bushes. "I loved your father, I loved your brother," she said. Another woman prefaced her question about homeland security with an aside about a recent Bush campaign ad with Barbara Bush. "I liked the ad with your mom in it. It was very sweet," she said.
The event itself was a family affair too. Jeb brought along his sons, Jeb Jr., whom he called "2.0," and George P. Bush, who introduced his dad as "a grinder who's going to see this through to the end." Jeb had to pause more than once when he talked about his wife, Columba, who was in the crowd, too. He stopped at length when the subject of his daughter's past struggles with addiction came up. "I'm sorry, I've never done this in front of Columba," Jeb explained.
Tim McDonald, a telecom executive visiting New Hampshire from New Jersey, described Bush as "a man of character and integrity," which is also how he described the Bush family, but McDonald saw the family legacy as both a potential blessing and a potential curse in voters' minds.
"To many, the family is the strength, the asset, the foundation," he said. "And to others, it's a drag because they project onto the candidate issues of the brother or the father."
Others worried about the Bush family's effect on Jeb's electability, specifically about him running with an establishment name in an anti-establishment year.
"I like him, I like his dad. I like his brother," said Lorri Thornton, a middle school teacher from Bedford. "But I think he's got the wrong last name. It's not a problem for me, but I know it is for other people."
There's nothing Jeb Bush can do to control how people remember his father's presidency or how they feel about his brother's time in the White House. But he can control how he talks about his family and the way he describes what his family's name and legacy mean to him. As much as he has struggled to carry the weight of the Bush name in the past, he has found a way to wear it with ease in New Hampshire.
"With the Bush thing, people are just going to have to get over it, alright?" Jeb told the town hall after his father and brother came up again. "I am who I am."
A portion of the media has put the Jeb campaign on a deathwatch. When I told one reporter I was heading out to a Bush town hall, he joked, "Tell him bye for me." Others just say, "Poor Jeb."
But the men and women going out to see Jeb in New Hampshire weren't ready to say goodbye yet. They defended him the way you'd defend an old friend, calling him "honest," "decent" and "a good man." His no-frills approach could play well among New England independents on Tuesday and more pragmatic Republicans in South Carolina. Jeb promised that's where he's going next this time with his brother, George, along. Together They're going to talk about getting Jeb elected president in 2016.
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