WASHINGTON — Jeb Bush used to say he didn’t want to get into a food fight with Donald Trump. Now he’s the one doing the slinging.
Trump’s relentless verbal attacks on Jeb Bush aren’t bouncing off the former Florida governor as cleanly as they once did.
Bush, an establishment favorite and the one-time front-runner, has begun taking the brash billionaire head-on since Trump launched his playbook-bending campaign. Bush, who has faced charges he’s too moderate a Republican, is now accusing Trump of being no Republican at all.
What’s more, the Bush campaign is acknowledging now that the Trump campaign can’t simply be dismissed, and it’s here to stay.
“If Donald Trump is going to attempt a legitimate campaign, we are going to treat him as we would any other candidate,” Bush campaign communications director Tim Miller told CNN.
Bush last week delivered his sharpest attacks yet against Trump — for once, unprompted by the media — taking several minutes during a town hall event in New Hampshire to excoriate the real estate mogul as someone without a “proven conservative record” who has long supported Democrats and Democratic polices and called Trump’s plan to deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants “un-American.”
Earlier this week his campaign released a video online slamming Trump’s immigration policy as “catastrophic” and not conservative.
And on Wednesday a visibly agitated and energized Bush said in a clear shot at Trump that “leadership means you have to be all-in, it’s not about yapping” and also said Trump “doesn’t have a plan” for immigration and should be “held to account.”
That’s a big change for a candidate who just over a month ago said he was “done” talking about Trump and didn’t want to “get into a food fight” when asked about the insurgent outsider in an interview.
“I’ve already stated my views about Donald Trump,” Bush told Fox News on July 8. “I’m through.”
But now that Bush has decided to punch back in the face of an increasingly personal barrage of attacks from Trump — who’s recently taken to calling Bush “low-energy” — several Republican operatives are praising the Bush campaign’s decision as the right move.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who early last month suggested Bush should avoid “taking Trump’s bait,” said it’s now clear Bush needs to hit back as the Trump’s campaign has revealed its “staying power” and Bush needs to avoid being defined by Trump’s attacks.
“If you don’t stand up to your opponent that is trying to define you then you’re allowing yourself to be defined. Basically Trump is attempting to swiftboat Jeb Bush with a variety of attacks in order to show that Jeb is too weak to be a contender in the Republican primary,” Bonjean said, referring to the attacks 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry faced from a group that sought to smear his military record.
The Trump campaign declined to comment for this story.
But the new head-to-head dynamic could be a boon for Bush, who, through his new, reinvigorated counter punches, is already responding to Trump’s charge that Bush lacks the energy to be president.
“Jeb’s already getting attacked by Trump so there’s no downside and there’s only an upside (to fighting back),” GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos said. “Taking on Donald Trump is not a bad way to demonstrate that you’re just as tough as he is and unafraid to tackle America’s big problems.”
And beyond style, Bush campaign officials and allies emphasize that a more confrontational environment sets up a welcome contrast on substance between the Florida governor and the New York real estate tycoon.
It’s giving Bush an opportunity to point to his conservative record as governor, undermining Trump’s conservative claim and cutting against the narrative that has consistently stalked the Bush campaign since even before its official launch: that Bush is a moderate.
Bush has already pointed to Trump’s past support of a Canadian-style universal health care system, his call for raising taxes on the wealthy and Bush has punched holes in Trump’s immigration plan.
“I think what people are eventually going to vote for is a proven conservative leader that’s done it, not talked about it, that’s actually done it. And I have a proven conservative record — consistent, proven conservative record. When no one was watching. Long time proven conservative record. Mr. Trump doesn’t have a proven conservative record,” Bush said as he fired off his volley against Trump last week in New Hampshire, where just 15 miles away Trump was hosting a competing event.
Trump has been unrelenting in his attacks against Bush since even before he officially launched his candidacy, insisting Bush is no better than Clinton and slamming the dynastic politics at work.
“Trump wears the scorn of Jeb Bush like a medal,” said Roger Stone, a former Trump political adviser who continues to back Trump’s bid for president.
Stone said a Bush vs. Trump campaign would buttress Trump’s candidacy because Bush embodies the “political establishment, the elite, the lobbyist candidate.”
“They might end up being the standard bearers for their wings of the party,” Stone said.
Trump is already relishing his hold on the narrative as his use of the term “anchor babies,” which is considered offensive by many, flummoxed Bush as the Floridian who is married to a Mexican-American sought to explain his use of the term, and wound up offending Asians.
The super PAC supporting Jeb Bush, however, which could be used to fling high-dollar attack ads at Trump, is instead focusing the bulk of its early spending on painting a positive picture of Bush and his record — not attacking Trump.
“We take every candidate seriously, but no one else in this race, particularly Donald Trump, has a record that even comes close to Jeb’s record of conservative accomplishment,” Right to Rise USA spokesman Paul Lindsay said when asked about Trump.
The super PAC is dropping a $10 million ad buy next month in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which Bush allies say will largely push a positive message through December.
The bulk of that spending is on positive ads, but the super PAC isn’t leaving all the attacks to the candidate they support. It’s also having a bit of fun, sending a small plane soaring through the skies above a Trump event in Alabama last week with a banner that read “Trump 4 higher taxes. Jeb for Prez.”