Jeb Bush, in shirt-sleeves and khakis, rolled up to a picturesque cabin Thursday night in Concord with red walls, white shutters and that formerly served as a snowshoer club founded in the 1890s.
The walls that smelled of pine and burnt wood were adorned with old snowshoes, framed black and white photos, and wintery relics.
Dozens of Republicans from the area gathered in the small space Thursday night, aptly named the Snowshoe Club, to eat pie while they listened to the former Florida governor tell his story and answer questions as he prepares for a likely presidential bid.
“What are these things by the way?” Bush asked the audience, stopping himself mid-sentence during his remarks to point out a snowshoe mounted on the wall. “We don’t have these in Miami.”
“Fish traps,” one man shouted out, as the audience laughed.
“I’m trying to learn,” Bush said, acknowledging the joke. “I’m trying to get into the cultural thing.”
It was one of many moments Thursday when the governor, a self-described introvert who is frequently compared to his more outgoing brother, appeared to let loose in the often-times awkward spotlight of a presidential bid. Bush carried out a cool confidence not only in lighter moments but also when pressed about uncomfortable topics.
When one man asked how he plans to deal with public fatigue of political dynasties, Bush got a big laugh saying he’s not trying to “break the tie between the Adams family and the Bush family.”
Another man, Charles Pewitt, sharply disagreed with Bush’s more moderate views on immigration, spending nearly two minutes blasting the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight bill and challenging the governor on his openness to a pathway to legalization. “You’re going to have a tough sell,” Pewitt charged.
Bush hit back.
“Well that’s my job. My job is to not back down on my beliefs. Charles, hopefully you liked some of the other stuff I said. I’m marking you down as neutral on the immigration one,” he said, drawing laughs. “I respect your view but I don’t have to agree to it.”
It’s not the first time Bush had used the “neutral” line when defusing tense moments. He said the same thing to a group of protesters who walked out during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conferences earlier this year.
Bush also appeared more comfortable dishing out some red meat. Asked what he would do about the IRS, the former governor blasted President Barack Obama for appointing people who lacked “integrity.”
“Seems like the President’s approach is that you have one-part political hack and one-part academic,” Bush said. “What about practical people? What about people that actually have life experiences?”
And he sharpened his rhetoric against the President for taking another step toward normalizing relations with Cuba this week. “The idea that Cuba is off the terrorist list is kind of interesting since they harbor terrorists,” Bush said.
The former governor has been known to come across as stiff when he gives public speeches with prepared remarks, and Thursday night’s event was another attempt to showcase his personality by mixing him in with voters and letting him have more authentic interactions in an intimate setting.
On a New Hampshire radio show Friday morning, Bush acknowledged that campaigning requires a person to reveal “vulnerabilities” and “get outside your comfort zone,” two ways of proving that a candidacy is “not all staged in some kind of phony way.”
As he was working the room and shaking hands with voters, he stopped to engage with an environmental activist who wanted to know Bush’s stance on climate change.
“Look, the climate is changing,” Bush said. “Obviously it’s changing. Down where I live…in a place where you’re pretty close to sea level, a couple of inches starts having an impact.”
While Bush, who lives in Miami, said it was still “legitimate to question” some climate models, he said certain facts couldn’t be disputed.
“Clearly, I don’t think you can deny the fact that the climate is changing. The question is what do we do about it? Do we destroy our economy?” he asked. “Or do we find some place where there’s common ground where we do this in the right way?”
Bush was known for his conservation work in Florida’s famed Everglades region. And while he has made headlines in the past for expressing skepticism about climate change, his statements on the topic Thursday displayed a departure from many in his own party and could be problematic in a GOP presidential primary.
In another sign of feeling comfortable in his own skin, Bush stopped on his way out to eat a slice of blueberry pie, skirting his paleo diet and embracing the sugary treat as a hoard of reporters and cameras looked on. “Slow news day?” he said, taking a bite.
Aside from the wine he drinks at night, Bush said it was the first time he cheated on the food plan that’s helped him slim down in recent months. “To hell with the diet.”
Bush continued answering questions as he chowed down, cracking wise about Hillary Clinton’s Chipotle visit and comedian Jon Stewart. He again made himself available to reporters outside for questions, a practice that’s now become regular at his early voting state events.
When he stepped into the passenger side of his car, he continued to engage with the crowd with his arm propped up on the window sill. Asked what he thought about the phrase that “nothing tastes as good as being thin” – a phrase made famous by super model Kate Moss – Bush, as he often does, paused to think about his answer.
“That concept’s been challenged tonight after I’ve had my blueberry pie,” he said. “If I had had vanilla ice cream on top of it, I probably would have never gone back.”