Jeb Bush didn’t even wait for the question to be asked in full.
“Of course it was canceled!” he exclaimed.
The former Florida governor was talking about Donald Trump’s planned trip to Israel, which was abruptly scrapped days after it was scheduled. The cancellation came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticised Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban most Muslims from entering the US.
“Who would want to see him after he created a real problem by a blanket statement that wasn’t serious?” Bush continued, speaking during an interview with Business Insider in Milford, New Hampshire.
“Look, the guy’s not serious. He’s not a serious person. He can’t be commander in chief. He doesn’t have plans. This is all dog-whistle talk. This is to provoke anger. This is to — with all due respect to the media — this is to generate massive attention to him.”
Days before, Bush said he wasn’t going to talk about Trump anymore. He evidently changed his mind.
It started with his Thursday event in New Hampshire and continued through a Tuesday-night Republican presidential debate in which he repeatedly exchanged blows with Trump. Bush and his campaign continued the assault throughout the week, using the debate’s momentum to lambaste Trump’s foreign policy. On Saturday, saying he had to get something off his chest, he called Trump a “jerk.”
He has largely been the only major candidate willing to go toe-to-toe with Trump during one of the more controversial two-week stretches of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), two candidates who have been surging in the race, spent the debate and much of the past week bickering about their respective immigration-record histories.
Cruz, given chances to repeat his questioning of Trump’s “judgment” at a private event, has actively avoided attacking him. Rubio missed an opportunity to make explicit note of Trump’s flailing answer on the nuclear triad. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), the next day, defended Trump when asked about Bush’s attacks, saying Trump “looked like a serious candidate.”
“Trump is the front-runner!” Bush communications director Tim Miller told Business Insider in an email. “His policies are unhinged and Jeb is standing-up to him because apparently others are letting political motivations guide their decision to avoid him rather than defending conservative principles and the interests of the country.”
Bush’s attack strategy contains its risks. Candidates, past and present, have shifted strategies to almost exclusively trash Trump and his campaign with little results to show for it. Trump himself often brags that any candidate who attacks him often sees his or her poll numbers plunder.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, two Republicans who have both dropped out of the 2016 race, briefly embraced anti-Trump strategies. Trump’s most consistently vehement critic, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), has not been able to register in Republican-primary polls.
Even Bush himself has tried it once before, amid Trump’s rise in the summer, with little success.
“Engaging Trump, that’s a media play, not an electoral play,” said Matt Mackowiak, a veteran Republican strategist and the president of the Potomac Strategy Group.
“He was bordering on irrelevance,” Mackowiak added of Bush. “If you look at the coverage” post-debate, he said “everything else is like it didn’t even happen.”
Indeed, Bush landed several blows at Trump that have earned him extra days of coverage. In one exchange, Bush called Trump a “chaos candidate” and potential “chaos president.” Perhaps the most memorable jab came when Bush referenced Trump’s comment that he obtains foreign-policy knowledge from “the shows” — Sunday-morning political talk shows.
Bush suggested Trump was actually watching Saturday-morning cartoons.
“I won’t get my information from ‘the shows.’ I don’t know if that’s Saturday morning or Sunday morning,” Bush said. In a post-debate CNN interview, Bush boasted that the line “just came to me.”
Bush’s assaults might also go farther than other candidates. Senior Bush aides have reportedly looked into the possibility of backing out of a candidate pledge to support the eventual nominee — if, in fact, Trump were to win the nomination.
And national security is a topic on which Bush has sought to extensively focus in the lead-up to the first caucuses and primaries of the 2016 election. It’s an area where he sees a clear opening against Trump, at a time when Americans are more concerned about the threat of terror than anytime since the September 11, 2001, attacks on US soil.
“The election may revolve more around these national-security issues more now than I anticipated,” Bush told Business Insider last week.
Indeed, Bush’s campaign cut a video that spliced together their debate exchange with some of Trump’s past comments. And Bush’s team pounced on Friday when Trump again raised eyebrows by praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the day before had called Trump “very talented.”
Ultimately, Bush may be making a play to contrast himself from rivals he views as more immediate threats on the road to Trump. Danny Diaz, Bush’s campaign manager, argued after Tuesday’s debate that the crucial first-primary state of New Hampshire is a virtual “jump ball” among five to six candidates who are all currently vying for second behind Trump.
New Hampshire could become especially significant if Trump wins Iowa, the first-caucus state, and New Hampshire. Right now, Trump is neck and neck with Cruz in Iowa and up by 16 points over his rivals in New Hampshire, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent surveys in each state.
Faced with the possibility of two Trump victories in a row, some in the party believe it could lead to a rapid panic within the party’s establishment.
“It would raise the stakes in New Hampshire,” Mackowiak said. “The establishment would have to quickly unite behind whoever does best [next to Trump] in New Hampshire. And what you’d see is a very rapid coalescing.”
At the town-hall event in the Granite State last week, Bush joked that he had told his staff earlier in the day that he had “almost promised not to use [Trump’s] name today.”
But he couldn’t resist. When one New Hampshire voter asked him his plan on immigration, he contrasted his view with Trump’s stated goal of deporting the approximately 11 million people living in the country unlawfully.
“That’s not a serious proposal. He’s not a serious man,” Bush said.
He added: “Pass that along, by the way. Because that will get him upset.”
For his part, Trump responded to Bush’s Friday attacks with an extensive series of tweets:
The last thing our country needs is another BUSH! Dumb as a rock!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2015
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