At 3% in the polls, Jeb Bush in free-fall

Story highlights

  • Jeb Bush has fallen to 3% in Friday's CNN/ORC national poll
  • Bush has struggled to have a consistent message that breaks through
  • His campaign says there is time, but admits numbers won't spike overnight

Washington (CNN)Jeb Bush has tried everything.

His campaign allies have blanketed the airwaves with almost $30 million in ads. Aiming to shake the "low-energy" tag and prove his toughness, Bush hit Donald Trump as a carnival barker unfit for the serious job of being President. He attacked Sen. Marco Rubio, suggesting his former protégé was a dilettante in a hurry. He cut staff, hired a debate coach, and pledged that "Jeb Can Fix It."
Bush is now polling at 3% -- and dropping.
    The 3% figure puts Bush in sixth place in the national GOP race, according to the CNN/ORC poll released Friday morning. It's the latest insult and disappointment for Bush, a son and brother of presidents, the conservative former two-term governor of Florida and the man who started the race as the unquestioned establishment favorite.
    With two months left before the Iowa caucuses, Bush is saddled with the nagging questions: What happened? And is there anything the self-proclaimed "joyful tortoise" can do to turn things around?
    Bush has struggled to gain traction and settle on a distinctive message to set him apart from his Republican opponents. He has often said that elections are about the future, but his major accomplishments happened more than a decade ago. And vowing to be his own man who isn't tied to the politics and policies of his older brother, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush has also said his family ties give him insights into foreign policy while his campaign brought on advisers from the old days.
    Bush's stump speech has fluctuated as well. He used to frequently talk about his Mexican-born wife, Columba, lapse into Spanish, and promise to campaign with "brazos abiertos" -- arms wide open -- touting his appeal to non-white voters. Now, he doesn't mention his Hispanic ties quite as often.
    Given the success of political outsiders Trump and Ben Carson, asked if this was simply the wrong year for a former two-term governor like him, Bush said no. And he insists that there is still plenty of time for his well-funded state-by-state campaign to catch on among Republican voters who have largely viewed his candidacy with a shrug.
    "In Iowa it's a question of organization, in New Hampshire, it's retail politics. In South Carolina, a great organization matters. I'm making great progress in those states. And we have the best campaign in Nevada," Bush said Wednesday morning in an interview with Iowa Public Television. "So, look, in October, in November, even in December of the last two election cycles, the people that were winning in December weren't the ones that ended up winning. It's just the nature of the beast, and there's no reason to rewrite history. People make up their minds late."
    In New Hampshire, where Bush is in single digits, voters have opened their mailboxes over the last days to find direct mail pieces aimed at helping them make up their minds. The pieces make the central arguments of Bush's campaign -- that he was "Veto Corleone" in Florida, could shake up Washington and that he is a doer, not a talker — a clear swipe at Trump.
    On Monday, his campaign rolled out a video called "Storm Governor" that highlighted Bush's leadership after Hurricane Ivan hit the Sunshine State in 2004. But the video, which includes footage of a not-yet-grey Bush, is also a reminder that convincing New Hampshire voters what he did 11 years ago in Florida is relevant is a hard case to make.
    Bush has continued to emphasize his seriousness and experience, especially in the national security field. A new ad called "Honor" featuring Medal of Honor winners started airing in New Hampshire and Boston on Wednesday on Fox News -- the spot is part of a $600,000 ad buy that will run for three weeks.
    "This is no reality show. This is serious business," says retired Marine Maj. Gen. James Livingston, who has been helping Bush in South Carolina. "This is about the livelihood of our kids and grandkids." Then, with a picture of President Barack Obama on the screen: "This commander-in-chief requires training wheels."

    Spending more time in New Hampshire

    His campaign doesn't expect poll numbers to rebound quickly.
    "It's just not an expectation that we have or something we're concerned about. I think what we've got to be concerned about is getting Jeb in front of voters in the early states," said communications director Tim Miller.
    He highlighted their ground game and said Bush will continue to talk more about national security and spend a lot of time in New Hampshire in the coming two months. He'll be joined by surrogates who can serve as validators for Bush's record. And the campaign, he said, has seen increased conversions among voters in phone calls and door knocking over the past few weeks.
    "It's something that we feel optimistic about and so that infrastructure needs to be in place to capitalize on what we hope is momentum heading into the primaries and caucuses," he said.
    On the stump -- mostly in South Carolina and New Hampshire -- Bush has shifted from telling his life story to telling stories from people featured in some of his early campaign videos.
    This is far from Bush's first political campaign, but at times the press-the-flesh aspect of retail campaigning has eluded him. At an Iowa event on Monday, for example, rather than work the buffet line at a high-attendance dinner, he simply got his food and went back to his table, politely stopping to take selfies with people who came over to greet him. He quickly rushed out after his speech.
    Instead, the governor, a self-described introvert, fares better in smaller, more intimate events, like his town halls with 100 to 200 people. Those settings allow him to engage in one-on-one interactions that sometimes lead to long conversations afterwards when he sticks around to mix and mingle with as many voters who want to meet him.
    Mindful of his brother's stumbles in New Hampshire in 2000, when he lost to John McCain, it's those same town halls and house parties where Jeb Bush excels.
    "In the past candidates in who have campaigned in traditional way with town halls and house parties have been rewarded by voters and candidates who cut corners and just give big speeches suffer," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. "But in this cycle, voters don't seem to be punishing Ben Carson and Donald Trump who have hardly done any traditional campaigning at all. The candidates who are wearing out their shoes aren't really getting credit."
    Bush's hope is that all the rules of prior presidential campaigns finally begin to shape the race. In the 2004 Democratic campaign, veteran Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry staged a comeback against then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the weeks before Iowa. And in 2008, GOP Sen. John McCain ignored Iowa and camped out in New Hampshire to launch a comeback. But McCain and Kerry were sitting senators and war heroes with inspiring biographies. Bush doesn't doesn't deliver soaring speeches or great soundbites and debate riffs. And in his almost decade away from elective office, his party has moved rightward, fueled by an angry base that Bush has yet to connect with.
    "When we get closer to this...the decision will be made by voters really on the following things: Do you have ideas that will make my life better? Do you have the fortitude, the leadership skills to make it happen?...Do you care about me?" he said in Iowa. "Do you care about the condition that I'm in? And, look, my life experience is 32 years in business, eight years as a reform minded governor. I think over time that, that kind of skillset that I've acquired through my life experience will be helpful to me for sure."