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Jeb Bush Flops In South Carolina, Extinguishing His Campaign’s Last Flicker Of Hope

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 21/02/2016 Scott Conroy

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) finished far behind the top three candidates in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, all but ending a dismal presidential campaign that was built to “shock and awe” his opponents but barely made them flinch. 

Bush did not immediately announce his forthcoming plans, but his showing here ends any serious doubt about whether he can remain viable going forward. His fall from frontrunner to afterthought has been as steady as it has been dramatic.

Bush, 63, entered the 2016 race as the presumed favorite for the Republican nomination last summer with a $103 million head start, thanks to his record-shattering fundraising spree during the first half of 2015.

But Bush’s establishment pedigree and famous last name proved ultimately more detrimental than helpful to his bid, as rank-and-file GOP primary voters in the mood for a much different kind of presidential standard-bearer could not find much to like about one whose father and brother both previously called the White House home. 

Still, as recently as last Wednesday morning, the Bush campaign had reason to believe that things might have turned out differently here.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)—a former 2016 candidate who endorsed Bush after dropping out of the race in December—had been going all out on his behalf. 

And on Monday, former President George W. Bush came out of more than seven years of political hibernation to stump for his younger brother in North Charleston, providing a boost of free media attention and a much needed jolt of energy to the candidate. 

South Carolina has long been Bush country, and the former Florida governor’s campaign saw a jump in its internal polls that placed them neck and neck with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for third place.

But times change, and the Bush name does not mean as much in South Carolina politics now as it once did.

The hammer dropped in the form of an unexpected endorsement for Rubio from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who is popular among Republicans here.

Haley’s backing of Rubio signaled to the influential Republican establishment that the younger Floridian was the horse with which to run. It was also a particularly painful affront to Bush, who’d courted Haley's endorsement assiduously. 

In an ill-conceived comment that was also prophetic, Bush said in an interview with NBC News on the night before Haley made her move that her backing would be “the most meaningful endorsement in the state.” 

In purely political terms, it was yet another unforced error committed by Bush in a campaign that has been full of them. 

Bush is the only Republican candidate who has consistently and emphatically taken on the frontrunner, Donald Trump, who has responded in kind. But in the eyes of Republican voters who are hungry for something new, uncompromising and unapologetically belligerent, the staid Bush has come out on the losing end of just about all of their exchanges.

Bush, who hasn't run a campaign since his re-election race in 2002, proved to be ill-equipped by nature to succeed in the current environment. 

Trump’s early assessment that Bush had “low energy” clearly grated on him, but it left a mark. In debates and other public appearances, Bush indeed struggled to generate much discernible enthusiasm, even as he constantly repeated the boilerplate mantra that he was campaigning “joyfully.”

Not only did Bush prove to be gaffe-prone—delivering a series of inartful comments on issues ranging from the Iraq war to Medicare and women’s health—he had a hard time finding and sticking to an overriding message on the stump. 

Bush also struggled painfully at times to connect as well with everyday people as he did with the multimillionaires who largely funded his campaign.

To many of those who knew and supported him enthusiastically in Florida, Bush’s problems resonating with the national Republican primary electorate came as a surprise, in part because of his deeply conservative record in office.

But his support for comprehensive immigration reform and the Common Core educational standards were two areas in which he broke from conservative orthodoxy, and right-leaning voters have been unwilling to look past these apostasies. 

As it struggled to gain traction, Bush's campaign attempted a course correction in October, slashing operational budgets and trimming staff salaries. The move was part of an effort to run a leaner operation that focused primarily on hunkering down in the early states—a feat that John McCain’s high-flying turned shoestring operation pulled off successfully in 2008.

But the fundamental problem was not the campaign that Bush was running. It was the candidate. 

In forecasting his strategy before entering the race, Bush had said that a successful Republican contender must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general.” 

It was a characterization that establishment Republicans lauded at the time as a clear-eyed assessment of what it would take to win back the White House. There was only one problem: It didn’t make any sense.

In the end, Bush has indeed lost the primary. Someone else, it seems, will be running in the general.

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