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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Jeb Bush, the unconvincing underdog

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Jeb Bush. Since it’d been rumored for a long time he was going to run for president this cycle, any potential Republican contenders should have stood by the side of the road and applauded while his motorcade passed by.

That’s what they do for the president, right?

Jeb BushThen came Donald Trump and the “outsiders,” and Jeb-world grew cloudy. A deeper analysis shows things actually started morphing years earlier in America as the grassroots became more and more frustrated with the lack of leadership in Washington. The Republican Party – aka, the “stupid party” – couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even stop Obama’s agenda with majorities in Congress and the Supreme Court.

As the figurehead of the GOP, the Bush family is symbolic of the problems with it. There is a serious contempt for the Bush brand with Republican voters.

Jeb may be the most outwardly conservative member of the Bush clan, but his candidacy was doomed from the start. If you can’t even get people to look in your direction because of your last name, don’t run for president.

Barbara Bush was right – America has had enough Bushes.

It certainly appears Jeb is finally realizing the obstacles he faces. As a result, he’s “reinventing” himself once again, this time as an underdog. Some say it’s a last attempt to save his campaign, but I think it’s a way to preserve some dignity before he inevitably steps away. In doing so, Jeb can say he gave it all he had.

Ryan Lovelace, Al Weaver and David M. Drucker of the Washington Examiner report, "[T]he former two-term Florida governor and son and brother of the last two Republican presidents finally pulled the plug on a campaign strategy that was built for a front-runner who was steamrolling the competition. Bush described the shift as going ‘lean and mean and I have the ability to adapt.’”

Adapt to what, losing?

In a memorandum, the Bush campaign stated it was going to focus on New Hampshire, the early state with the least conservative voters that launched John McCain and Mitt Romney to the nomination the past two primary years.

Along the way, they’re trimming the flesh all the way to the bone. “Drastic changes described by the memo include staff cutbacks and salary reductions, for a 40 percent trim in total payroll costs… Forty-five percent of all non-media, non-voter contact expenses are being slashed, including 20 percent of campaign travel costs,” Lovelace, Weaver and Drucker wrote.

One unidentified consultant said of Bush’s moves, "I'm not sure it's death yet, but it's starting to smell like it.”

It’s a sad state of affairs when the only plan you have left is to hope people feel sorry for you. Playing the “underdog” is a tried and true strategy to gain more attention, but people already know Jeb and don’t like what they’re seeing.

It’s time for this dog to retire to the front porch.

(For another revealing look at the Bush tent fold-up, try this story at Politico.)

Trump says Iowa polls are wrong – at least some of them

Donald Trump likes winning. In fact, he’s staked his campaign – if not his life – on his unique ability to come out ahead.

He wrote the “Art of the Deal,” and brags about how he can renegotiate any transaction in his favor, from better healthcare benefits for veterans to nuclear arms treaties with foreign nations.

In other words, he’s a confident guy.

That’s why last week’s release of a couple polls showing him behind Ben Carson in Iowa seems to have hit home with The Donald. At a loss to explain why he appears to be slipping, his response is… the polls must be wrong.

Rebecca Berg of Real Clear Politics reports Trump said during a rally on Friday, “I love Iowa, and I honestly believe those polls are wrong. I’m a Presbyterian, I’m a great Christian.”

Berg continues, “Later, Trump questioned the motives of the pollsters themselves, although he has touted polling by the same outlets in the past.

“Those pollsters do not like me,” he said.

(Note: For what it’s worth, here’s a poll released Sunday which shows the two tied in Iowa. And Trump no doubt likes this poll, which shows Republican voters think he’s the most viable in the general election.)

Berg provides several examples of Trump’s extolling the correctness of any number of polls that show him in the lead nationally or in individual states. To say they’re wrong now… well, why?

One of the key things for any candidate to possess is the perception he (or she) can win, and that’s what Carson has gained with the latest Iowa polls. Up until recently it’s been Trump, Trump and more Trump, with a little Ben thrown in as a solid second.

But now Carson has opened up a pretty solid lead in the state that votes first, so people may change their minds. Momentum is important.

There are probably a lot of folks in Iowa who still like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, for example, but won’t choose them this time around because they don’t believe either can win. Carson looks very strong and the perception is he’s viable.

Trump is right – people like a winner. They just may have a different definition of what constitutes a winner – or a leader.

Ted Cruz has a Carson problem

Normally I would take anything liberal journalist Al Hunt writes with a grain of salt, but I think he makes a good point in arguing Ted Cruz’s main rival for the nomination isn’t Donald Trump – it’s Ben Carson.

Hunt writes, “[C]hipping away at Carson is harder. There is no record to attack. Republican voters seem unfazed by his lack of experience, and his calm, genial manner plays well in Iowa.

“About 30 percent of Carson's evangelical supporters pick Cruz as their second choice, says Ann Selzer, the Iowa pollster who conducted the survey, while noting that the former head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins is viewed favorably by almost all Iowa Republicans. ‘Cruz's big target is Carson,’ she said. ‘But the problem is there's almost no one that doesn't like Ben Carson. Cruz attacks him at his peril.’”

Of course Iowa is only one state, but if Carson can court Evangelical voters across the board, he’ll do well in other areas that would normally favor Cruz as well.

Carson has proven to be very difficult to assail for several reasons. There’s his remarkable life story. Then there’s his easy-going, likable personality. There’s also his race – though his ethnicity only plays into his potential to connect with minority voters (which he’s shown an ability to do). Therefore, he has more cross-appeal than other Republican candidates.

Carson is light on specifics for sure. His foreign policy beliefs aren’t clear. He often takes several tries to fully explain his views. But without attacking him personally, how do you go about differentiating yourself?

Trump has tried, on immigration, by calling Ben an “okay doctor” and suggesting Carson wouldn’t carry much gravitas into dealing with world leaders.

The Donald tried to hit Ben again on Sunday, refusing to retract or apologize for comments he’d made on Carson’s Seventh Day Adventist faith.

Carson has said many times he won’t get into the mud with Trump or any candidate. He’s taking a very hands-off attitude to campaigning, an approach that seems to be working.

All of which is going to make Ted Cruz’s job to catch him much more challenging.

Fiorina needs a big hit in the CNBC debate

Finally today, another candidate who has a Ben Carson problem – and a Donald Trump problem and Ted Cruz problem, too – is Carly Fiorina. As the Republicans’ fourth “outsider,” she’s trailing the others in the race to lock up conservative support.

With that in mind, Wednesday night’s Republican debate will be crucial, where several candidates need a good showing to stave off the appearance of irrelevance.

Perhaps first among them is Carly Fiorina, who used two debate performances to emerge from the lower-tier but has slipped in the most recent polls. Ben Kamisar of The Hill reports, “Two places where strategists and supporters believe she can be uniquely effective is continuing to hammer Hillary Clinton, fresh off the heels of her Benghazi Committee testimony, and Planned Parenthood, as the House begins to assemble a select committee to investigate its practices.

“Many also note her success during the last debate at taking on Donald Trump, a place where most candidates have failed.”

Hillary is an easy target, and Carly’s already begun the process of going after the almost certain Democrat nominee. Planned Parenthood should also prove to be in Fiorina’s rhetorical domain, but beyond those two topics, how is she going to define herself?

She’s made cursory attacks on Washington, but nothing that makes her stand out. We’ll see in a couple days whether Fiorina is ready to define herself in a way that allows her to gain traction.

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