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Jeb Bush’s daring gambit: Be yourself

in 2017/Top Headlines by

Sen. Marco Rubio, one half of “Jebio” if you’ll excuse the tacky neologism, is quick to tell you who he is on the campaign trail: he’s the American Dream incarnate, prophet of a bold, totally not balding New American Century.

And lest you believe Rubio’s definition of his major Democratic rival — a vestige of the “lazy politics of yesterday” — Hillary Clinton has built a painstakingly orchestrated PR machine designed to neuralize voters and replace their impressions with its own carefully-honed message.

The fun-loving “hair icon, pantsuit aficionado” is good enough, she’s smart enough and damn it, she’s likable enough.

But ask Jeb who he is these days, writes Nick Corasaniti in the New York Times, and you’ll get a jarringly Zen answer: ‘myself.’

A journalist tossed him an intimate inquiry, the kind usually brushed off by politicians: Who in his family was ailing with Alzheimer’s?

Mr. Bush, his back to the reporter and an escape within reach, nevertheless whirled around. “My mother-in-law has dementia and she’s 94 years old,” he responded. “She’s a gift from God; she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”

The candid, personal detail would have gone unknown and unreported had Mr. Bush not stopped to answer a question. But that has been his hallmark throughout his two-day swing through New Hampshire: He has been open, available and engaging, in contrast with the stage-managed, tightly controlled events held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Though his gambit is refreshing compared to the moves Florida voters have seen from affectless semi-humans Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Scott, even Bush’s newfound radical honesty is a calculated risk.

…[T]he openness carries risks, too, as shown when he engaged in a debate last week with a college student in Nevada who told him before a pack of reporters that “your brother created ISIS.” It was an instant viral moment, one that put Mr. Bush on the defensive.

Still, that encounter did not seem to deter him in New Hampshire this week. At a press gathering in Portsmouth, he shouted over his shoulder while being shoved toward an S.U.V. when asked about the troop levels in Iraq. He stopped to speak in Spanish with a voter after an event in Concord. And he playfully grabbed at a boom microphone dangling over his car in Salem, before apologizing and saying he didn’t know they could break. (The microphone was fine.)

The elder Bush brother lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000 to John McCain, and some attributed the defeat to his style of campaigning here. Steve Duprey, a member of the Republican National Committee from New Hampshire, recalled the 1,000-person rallies George W. Bush held here as the wrong kind of event to hold in a small but proud “first in the nation” primary state.

By contrast, Jeb Bush’s smaller events — at these, he engages voters one on one — are the way to win the state.

“I think it’s a nice contrast with how his brother ran in 2000, and it’s the way you win votes in New Hampshire,” Mr. Duprey said.

Whether it’s the way Bush will win votes everywhere else, too, remains to be seen. In the meantime, get used to more public-private moments from Jeb.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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