Jeb Bush seeks post-debate lift among Iowa’s undecideds

Former Republican frontrunner performs more confidently in party’s fourth debate

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush serving coffee to military veterans in Johnston, Iowa, to mark Veterans Day. Photograph: Simon Carswell/The Irish Times

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush serving coffee to military veterans in Johnston, Iowa, to mark Veterans Day. Photograph: Simon Carswell/The Irish Times


They know all about winnowing fields in Iowa, this agricultural state in America’s heartland. Many Republicans are waiting for the party’s large field of 14 candidates to be cut down in size before picking a candidate.

It is just 80 days until an expected 120,000 Republican voters, across about 1,600 precincts in Iowa, become the first in the country to pick candidates in the 2016 presidential race. Iowa’s February 1st caucuses will be closely watched.

“I’ll wait until they narrow it down and then I’ll start listening but right now there are so damn many of them – it is just too much,” said Linda Campbell of Johnston, a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa’s state capital.

Campbell sits opposite Joyce Sondag as they await former Florida governor Jeb Bush at a breakfast in a supermarket to mark Veterans Day. Sondag voted for Bush’s father George HW and brother George W. “Can you imagine the world if Trump got in? If you want to have a war . . . it scares the hell out of me,” she said of the Republican frontrunner, who at 24.8 per cent in the polls, has four times the support Bush has in the national polls.

Still, the property tycoon and reality TV star is neck-and-neck in Iowa’s Republican polls with another anti-establishment outsider, retired surgeon Ben Carson. They have almost double the support of the next closest rivals: Florida senator Marco Rubio, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Bush. The polls are skewed by the fact that seven out of every 10 voters have not made up their minds yet.

The former Florida governor arrived into the HyVee supermarket in Johnston with a bounce in his step after a more confident and combative debate, the party’s fourth, in Milwaukee after a disastrous debate in Colorado last month.

Bush laid into Trump’s plan to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. “It would tear communities apart and it would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is,” said the former two-time governor. “And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal – they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now.”

Bush adopted a different strategy on Tuesday night, attacking Democratic favourite Hillary Clinton rather than another Republican after his offensive against Rubio in Colorado backfired badly. His stronger performance this week should halt the decline in his campaign.

“We need to start thinking about who is the person who can beat Hillary Clinton rather than trying to getting the small differences between each campaign,” Bush told reporters in Johnston.

The differences are being closely watched and the row between Bush and Trump showed that immigration is one of the hot topics for Republicans.

“The immigration issue has become the biggest litmus test to distinguish between the establishment candidates and conservatives,” said Nathan Arnold, the Iowa regional field director for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

Watching the debate at a party in Mickey’s Irish Bar in nearby Waukee, Dallas County, Republicans responded warmly to contributions from Bush, Rubio, Cruz, former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina and Kentucky senator Rand Paul, who had the best night of his campaign. There was no stand-out winner or loser.

“Nobody got knocked out,” said Tyler De Haan, chair of the Dallas County Republicans. “There were a lot of jabs tonight. Nobody got hit with a right hook, nobody landed a right hook.”

Rubio, a Cuban-American, showed himself a talented debater and again the Republican establishment’s best hope to beat Clinton. His clash with Paul, a libertarian, on whether you can be a conservative and rein in government spending and still have a strong military, was one of the night’s biggest flash-points and allowed Rubio to flex his foreign policy muscles.

National security, the economy and social conservative issues such as abortion are the topics of most concern to Republicans in Iowa, a state that has voted Democrat in six of the last seven presidential elections.

At the Johnston breakfast, military veterans saw Bush’s association with his father and brother and the wars they started as an advantage. “There is criticism of another Bush but who wouldn’t like to have two presidents available to ask their advice,” said Leo Thorsness, a fighter pilot and medal of honour winner who spent six years in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps after being shot down during the conflict.

“He doesn’t have a whitewashed perspective of it,” said Mark Walter (52), an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran of Jeb’s view of his brother’s unpopular wars. “He was up close and personal to the backlash,” he said, praising Bush’s credentials as a commander-in-chief and naming him of his three candidate picks.

There are said to be “three tickets” out of Iowa on to the next early-nominating states in the presidential race. John McCain, who polled fourth in 2008, was the only exception on his way to winning the Republican nomination.

Bush will be watching for a lift from his fifth-place position among the many undecideds in Iowa after his debate performance in neighbouring Wisconsin.