In New Hampshire, Jeb Bush leads with his chin

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks with area residents at a packed house party Friday, March 13, 2015, in Dover, N.H. On his opening foray into New Hampshire for his likely campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush challenged voters here to spend time learning about the issues and avoid shrill partisan sniping. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

DOVER, N.H. — In the driveway of a modest home on a residential street, Jeb Bush stood in the darkness Friday night, illuminated only by a lone TV camera light and surrounded by a few dozen members of the media.

It was his second media availability of the day on his first trip back to the Granite State since he campaigned for his brother George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000. And all day, Bush had been followed, swarmed, and hedged by a pack of reporters who watched his every move. They lobbed questions at him in the hallway of a technology firm as he attempted to tour the company’s headquarters, and in the kitchen of Fergus Cullen, a former state Republican Party chairman who hosted Bush for a house party, a tradition in Granite State presidential politics.

Bush seemed to be making a statement throughout the day by running toward the press and embracing questions. In addition to taking questions from reporters at both of his events, Bush sat for an hour with business leaders in Hudson and took their questions, and then stood in Cullen’s living room for nearly an hour to field questions from the New Hampshire residents who had come to see him.

“We’re leading with our chin,” said one Bush adviser.

Bush took a wide array of questions from the press, dealing with topics such as Hillary Clinton’s emails, the letter from Republican senators to the Ayatollah in Iran, whether Bush has changed his mind on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (he said he hasn’t), whether he will revisit his support for the Renewable Fuel Standard since second-generation biofuel producers said this week it’s not working for them (he indicated he might), and whether he’ll release his list of bundlers if he runs (he said he didn’t know).

On some questions, Bush gave vague or noncommittal replies or said he didn’t have an answer yet, as he hasn’t yet declared himself a candidate.

Bush was doing three things with this approach. First — and possibly foremost — he was issuing a challenge to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was in the state at the same time. Walker is the current darling of many in the Republican Party and is increasingly viewed as the champion of its conservative wing against the more moderate Bush.

But Walker — who at 47 is 15 years Bush’s junior — has far less political experience, especially with the national media. And Walker has already stumbled a few times in his few weeks at the front of the very large 2016 Republican pack.

Bush’s open arms approach in New Hampshire accentuated his comfort discussing a broad range of issues and his ability to stay cool under pressure. It will serve as a contrast with Walker, if the Wisconsin pol does not adapt the same style, or could even encourage the confrontational Wisconsinite to put himself before the roiling cacophony of shouted questions and camera flashes before he is ready and comfortable doing so.

Walker appeared Saturday at a New Hampshire Republican party event and spoke for approximately 20 minutes to an auditorium of a few hundred activists. He took three questions from the audience, and then – while shaking hands and signing autographs – he took a handful of questions from the press before aides escorted him away. Walker was asked about growing talk of him flip-flopping on a number of issues, from immigration to right to work legislation in Wisconsin to abortion to support for ethanol.

Walker reiterated Saturday that he has changed his position on immigration and no longer supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants because “we listen to the people.” But Walker said it was “just ridiculous” to say he has switched his positions on abortion and right to work.

On the issue of a federal ethanol mandate – a key issue in the corn-rich state of Iowa, which holds significant sway over the primary process by virtue of the fact it takes place first – Walker acknowledged he has shifted as well.

“Yeah I didn’t enact it in Wisconsin. My position was about Wisconsin,” Walker said. “My position was clear. What we’ve done in terms of what we said in Iowa was pretty clear as we’re going forward. We eventually want the [Renewable Fuel Standard] phased out but for right now it needs to be in place for Iowa.”

Being open with the press also allows Bush to accentuate another stylistic contrast he is drawing with Walker — allowing Bush to cast himself as the conciliatory, hopeful candidate who wants to bring the country together. Walker, who is running on his ability to fight public sector unions in Wisconsin, took a more pointed tone on Friday morning, calling Bush a “name from the past.”

Bush, meanwhile, told the crowd of onlookers in Cullen’s jam-packed living room that Republicans “have to go out and reach out to people of every walk of life, not with a divisive message but one that is unifying, one that says that everybody should have a chance to rise up.”

“You can be a conservative. You can do it with joy in your heart. You don't have to be angry about this. You can do it in a way that draws people toward our cause, and you can win in a purple state. And in this country if you’re going to begin to solve problems, we have to win,” Bush said.

Bush also is setting a radically different tone for his proto-campaign than the one taken by 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Romney was never one to enjoy sparring with the press, and he and his staff tried to limit his interactions with them to a minimum. Romney aides were perpetually fearful that the former Massachusetts governor would commit a gaffe, particularly on the unpredictable campaign trail when questions can come from virtually anyone on any topic.

The Romney campaign lacked, as a result, a certain sense of confidence and optimism. That’s another tone that Bush is obviously trying to set, even if there’s a long way to go before anyone is the party nominee.

Finally, Bush’s first trip here was a step toward exorcising the ghosts of his father’s and brother’s losses in the New Hampshire primaries of 1980 and 2000. Particularly in 2000, George W. Bush was undone in the Granite State by not spending enough time doing the retail politics in the living rooms and town halls that the state’s voters expect, and he lost to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who virtually set up camp in the state and took questions from voters and reporters until there were none left to ask.

Bush’s aides believe they can put him in almost any setting and that he’ll acquit himself well. And Bush believes it too. He said as much yesterday when telling the story of his run for governor in 1998, after an unsuccessful campaign in 1994.

Bush did a tour of 250 schools in Florida and found that the experience of meeting with people all over the state gave him a connection to voters that didn’t exist beforehand, he said.

"The horns kind of subsided in me,” Bush said, putting his fingers up on his head like a father playing the role of a monster with his young children. “People saw me for who I was.”

As Bush exited the house, photographers clambered over the roughly two feet of snow still in the front yard to get in position. And as Bush spoke, wearing a suit and tie but no coat, his breath was visible. Somewhere from the bank of six or seven TV cameras, a reporter asked Bush where he was in the process of deciding whether to run for president in 2016.

“Just wandering around New Hampshire,” Bush shot back playfully.

But he ended on another positive note, arguing that “there is no reason why [American politics] has to be a perpetual food fight.”

He said that the next president, whether it is a “he or she,” will have to show that they “understand why people are angry” but also “forge consensus to solve these problems so people aren’t as angry.”

A reporter asked Bush who the “she” might be, since there is only one woman in the Republican field who has expressed interest in running: former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Bush didn’t hesitate. “Kelly Ayotte,” he cracked, naming New Hampshire’s Republican senator.