Struggling Jeb Bush enjoys larger crowds

Story highlights

  • Bush drew a crowd of more than 500 in SC last week
  • New polls show Bush struggling in Iowa, New Hampshire

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (CNN)Jeb Bush is low in the polls but is experiencing something new: growing crowds.

The former Florida governor drew his largest crowd in recent memory when he hosted a town hall in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Saturday night, with 530 people in attendance, according to the fire marshal.
Bush typically draws between 100 and 200 people at his town halls so staffers had to search for extra seats. It was the fourth night in a row that Bush aides had to find more seats for a larger-than-expected crowd during a packed swing through New Hampshire and South Carolina -- two states that Bush is counting on to propel his beleaguered campaign forward.
    The question is whether last week marked the beginning of 'Jebmentum' or if it's simply an illustration of a more engaged electorate as the primary season gets underway.
    The polls certainly aren't offering Bush much comfort. A Quinnipiac University poll out on Monday has Bush at just 3% in Iowa. In New Hampshire, a Monmouth University survey released Monday has Bush at 4%, well behind establishment rivals including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
    Polls released over the weekend from Fox News and NBC/WSJ/Marist showed Bush faring better at 9%.
    Polling aside, Bush is placing his faith in recent audience response and his team's organizational ground game.
    He was rewarded with a lengthy standing ovation after his stump speech at the Hilton Head event Saturday night, and during the Q&A portion, the first questioner commented that Bush was more "dynamic" in person than expected.
    Later, Carol Putnam of Hilton Head, said she also found him "full of energy." It's an observation that voters are routinely surprised to find when they see Bush in the flesh -- an indication of just how successful Donald Trump has been in branding Bush as "low energy."
    "You know what, I've never understood this. For a guy who doesn't even know me, (he) just repeats it over and over again, it becomes the truth," Bush told the audience, addressing Trump's attacks. "It's the weirdest thing in the world. I just ran three miles on your beautiful beach before I came here and I had a full week. I work my tail off like I've done my entire adult life. I'm not bragging, that's just who I am. I love work. I think I do it with some energy."

    Bush: Trump 'will hijack the conservative cause'

    Ever since the December debate in Las Vegas, when Bush unveiled his ramped up attack strategy against Trump, the former Florida governor can hardly stop talking about his presidential rival.
    "If he wins, he will hijack the conservative cause," Bush said Saturday night, while also blasting other GOP candidates for not going hard after Trump.
    "Everyone running for president on the Republican side, as it relates to Donald Trump, is in the witness protection program," he said.
    In Dover, New Hampshire, he called Trump "the big man on the stage that has no idea how to do anything in terms of solving problems" and urged New Hampshire voters not to vote for "the bombastic" candidate just because he's interesting.
    And at the mention of Trump's name in Meredith, New Hampshire, a few members of the audience started booing.
    The most poignant story came from Pendleton, South Carolina, where a man named Tim Dyar hosted a town hall at his diner for Bush. Introducing the candidate, Dyar said he had never been involved in politics until Trump was accused of mocking a reporter with a disability -- something that Trump denies doing.
    Dyar's 12-year-old son, Breylen, has cerebral palsy, and Trump's remarks infuriated him. So he went online and started learning more about Bush's campaign, then reached out to them to ask how he could help.
    But not everyone is swayed by Bush's offensive against Trump. In Meredith, a man who's leaning towards the front-runner asked Bush why he called Trump a "jerk" last month. In an unusual move, Bush first listed some things he liked about Trump -- the fact that he embraces his financial success and combats political correctness -- but still pilloried the candidate for what he describes as "disparaging" Hispanics, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities.
    That's like "90% of all people," Bush quipped.
    The voter who asked the question, Tom Emanuel, wasn't persuaded and told CNN he was "definitely" still leaning towards Trump.

    'I'm not a creature of Washington'

    Bush's campaign is still mulling whether it can gin up more enthusiasm by bringing out former President George W. Bush on the campaign trail in support of his brother. The 43rd president now has a 77% approval rating among Republicans, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll in November.
    Rarely does an event go by where someone doesn't ask Bush about the health of his parents or say something complimentary about his family. But last week, the praise was on an uptick.
    In Dover, one man thanked Bush's family for their service, calling them "the closest thing to royalty we have," while another man told the candidate that a "third Bush" would be better than a "second Clinton or the one guy from Vermont."
    The following morning in Portsmouth, a woman had one question for Bush: "Is your mom as amazing as it seems?"
    Last week happened to mark his parents' 71st wedding anniversary, and Bush got excited applause whenever he would mention George and Barbara Bush.
    Talking to reporters, Bush was asked Saturday night whether he was using his family to its full potential, given the reverence that his supporters express about them at events.
    "I don't think about it," he said. "I just speak what I'm thinking, it's not organized probably as effective as it could be. I know people care about my family -- they love my brother, they love my dad and they love my mom. I don't go out of my way to talk about it, but it's part of who I am so -- it's does get a good response."
    And in a state like South Carolina, which was good for his brother and his dad in their presidential runs, an appearance by George W. Bush might be a wise Hail Mary for Jeb Bush's campaign, said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
    "Right now he's running out of things to deploy so I think he's willing to throw the kitchen sink at the wall to make it happen," O'Connell said.
    "For as maligned as 'W' is in the mainstream media, a lot of conservatives have a soft spot for him," he continued. "It would be about generating buzz but also about generating trust. If anyone has been mauled on this campaign cycle, it's been Jeb. You can't go 15 minutes without Trump mentioning his name, without talk radio mentioning him as a side joke."