Jeb deploys George W. Bush to improve his prospects

Bush team hopeful of reinvigorating campaign with better showing in South Carolina primary

CHARLESTON (South Carolina) • The brother who was never expected to become president - but did - would be trotted out as a lifeline to the brother who was always expected to become president, but now may not.

Former president George W. Bush was scheduled to take the stage yesterday evening alongside Mr Jeb Bush for a highly anticipated rally in North Charleston, South Carolina, part of the Bush team's effort to use the primary on Saturday in South Carolina - a state long favourable to the Bush family - to help reinvigorate Mr Bush's stalled presidential bid. The Bush campaign is also hoping the rally can seize on what was regarded as a strong debate performance last Saturday night.

But the appearance by the brothers - one the 43rd President, the other fighting to become the 45th - also offers a glimpse into the complicated dynamics of a family dynasty, as well as striking parallels with Mr George W. Bush's 2000 campaign here. It was when South Carolina was similarly emerging as a critical state for him, and where the race took a darkly negative turn.

"I'm proud of the fact he's coming, and honoured," Mr Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, told reporters last Thursday. "This is the first (time) that he's really kind of stepped out in the political realm since he was president."

He added, "For him to come and do this warms my heart."

But the decision to deploy Mr Bush's older brother was a complicated one. He had led the nation into an unpopular war in Iraq, and Mr Jeb Bush struggled early in his campaign to answer if he would have made the same decision, with the intelligence now available.

There was also concern that Mr George W. Bush, a more natural and charismatic politician, would upstage his brother, the more cerebral of the two, who can be awkward and gaffe-prone in person.

And the campaign also worried about the political reality: Some voters are hesitant to vote a third Bush into the White House, especially with an electorate craving for an angry Washington outsider.

Along the way, several moments have highlighted Mr Jeb Bush's challenges as he tries to both embrace his family - and the establishment politics it seems to represent - and distinguish himself. Introducing Mr Jeb Bush at a rally in New Hampshire, Mr Tom Ridge, who served as secretary of Homeland Security under his brother, slipped up and called him "George Bush", before quickly correcting his mistake.

And on Thursday in Columbia, South Carolina, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Bush supporter, inadvertently highlighted Mr Bush's balancing act when he told a crowd, "George W. Bush, I miss you, W., and he's coming back," before adding in the very next breath: "Jeb is his own man who comes from one of the great families of America."

The visit reflects how Mr Jeb Bush is increasingly relying on his famous family to help lift his fortunes, particularly after an abysmal showing in Iowa and a more respectable fourth-place finish in New Hampshire.

His mother Barbara Bush campaigned for him in New Hampshire, taking the stage at a rally to the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann. Her enlistment led Mr Donald Trump to taunt his rival for turning to "Mommy", and even to say during the debate on Saturday that she should be running for president. The Bush campaign has released a radio ad featuring his brother, and the "super PAC" backing him used the elder Bush in a television spot.

"He's got to do well here, and this is still somewhat friendly terrain," said Mr Tucker Eskew, a native of the state who worked on Mr George Bush's 2000 campaign. "The Bush family is still held in high regard by most South Carolinians, and the Bush presidency is still held in high regard - and maybe even higher regard - than in most places."

The super PAC supporting Mr Bush is expected to spend roughly US$12 million (S$16.7 million) here, including some to decimate his opponents. One TV ad on the air features a ticking stopwatch as a narrator asks the viewer to name "any accomplishments" of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. The group will also go after Governor John Kasich of Ohio.

The Bush team has already come under scrutiny here for its bare- knuckled tactics. Arriving in South Carolina, Mr Kasich said he worried about Mr Bush's "negativity" and what it might do to "the family legacy". And some Republicans have for months complained that Mr Bush's operation is simply paving the way for a Trump victory.

But feisty, muddy politics may be just what the voters here want.

"Negative campaigning, regardless of what anyone is going to say - it works," said Mr Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "We're one of the 13 original colonies. We've been throwing punches since the country started, and what they reward you for in South Carolina is how you take that punch."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Jeb deploys George W. Bush to improve his prospects'. Print Edition | Subscribe