In New Hampshire, Jeb seeks to shake shadow of family name

Updated 11:07 PM EDT, Fri April 17, 2015
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(CNN) —  

Jeb Bush took the podium at the mainstay presidential primary event “Politics & Eggs” in Manchester Friday morning, flanked by photos of his father and older brother.

The pictures of the two presidents, Bush said, “bring back really fond memories.”

And yet, the likely 2016 presidential candidate would prefer that New Hampshire voters ignore them.

As the former Florida governor mulls a presidential bid, his biggest political asset among establishment figures and donors—his family—is a liability with activists. And it’s a particularly acute problem in the Granite State, home to the first-in-the-nation primary that helped sink President George H.W. Bush’s re-election bid in 1992 and supported President George W. Bush’s biggest primary challenger, John McCain, in 2000.

In a two-day swing through the state featuring stops in Concord, Manchester and Nashua, the younger Bush sought to reverse his family’s fortunes.

“I’m going to have to show my heart, show who I am, tell my story,” he said. “It’s a little different than the story of my brother and my dad. This may come as a shock to you, but you have brothers and sisters so you may appreciate this: We’re not all alike. We make our own mistakes in life, we’re on our own life’s journey.”

RELATED: GOP presidential hopefuls woo party faithful in NH

Thursday night in Concord, Bush joked that he is not running “to try to break the tie between the Adams family and the Bush family”—the only two in American history to produce father-and-son presidents.

He was self-effacing when asked about a match-up with Hillary Clinton, which would mean one of their two last names had been on primary or general election ballots in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

“I have enough self-awareness to know that that is an oddity,” Bush said.

He also tried to disarm his skeptics. Asked at the New Hampshire GOP’s summit—the event that drew the entire Republican field into the state for Friday and Saturday—about the prospects of a dynastic Clinton vs. Bush election, he said: “I don’t see any coronation coming my way, trust me.”

“I mean, come on,” he added. “What are you seeing that I’m not seeing?”

Bush hasn’t officially entered the presidential race yet. But his Right to Rise political action committee has hired three key staffers in New Hampshire. Rich Killion, a Concord-based strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign and has guided scores of local races, will lead Bush’s efforts in the state. Rob Varsalone, who was George W. Bush’s top in-state aide in the 2004 election and is close to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and Nate Lamb, who was Scott Brown’s field director in his unsuccessful Senate race last year, are also on board.

At the New Hampshire GOP summit, Bush sought to strike a forward-looking tone.

“We will not win if we just complain about how bad things are,” Bush said. “We also have to offer a compelling alternative so that more and more and more people join our cause.”

He didn’t mention any GOP foes by name, but—through the cloak of an assault on President Barack Obama—took a veiled shot at the three freshman Republican senators who have entered the race so far: Florida’s Marco Rubio, Texas’s Ted Cruz and Kentucky’s Rand Paul.

Bush said that “accomplishment matters” and, suggesting that his time as Florida governor is better preparation than Congress, added: “The big desk is different than perhaps United States senator or another job.”

Bush didn’t throw much red meat to hardline conservatives, standing by his controversial stand in favor of immigration reform during his stops in New Hampshire, downplaying the importance of same-sex marriage and defending his calls for higher education standards, even as he said the federal government shouldn’t push Common Core on states.

But his biggest selling point was the eight years he spent as Florida’s top executive, saying his record is an “I’m-not-kidding conservative one.”

The summit’s attendees—particularly those who remembered the Bush family’s first two presidents—said it wasn’t his policies that concerned them, less than one year away from the state’s primary.

“The Bush family has been terrific, but I think we need a change,” said Jim McHugh, a 63-year-old consulting business owner from Portsmouth.

“It’s probably not fair to him, simply because his dad and his brother were president, but I think I would like to see someone new,” said Donna Slack, a 66-year-old Greenland retiree.

“I certainly don’t have anything against him personally. I think he did a wonderful job in Florida,” she added.

Bush earned strong reviews, though, from University of New Hampshire students—both of whom were in their early teenage years when Bush’s brother was president, and who weren’t alive when his father left office.

John Corbett, a 19-year-old sophomore, said Bush’s summit comments sold him.

“He’s extremely personable, compared to some other candidates,” he said. “Some crowds I’ve seen him speak at are not exactly his type of conservatives, but I think he really knows how to adapt to every situation.”

Michael Raccio, 21, another UNH student, said Bush “really impressed me,” but he’ll probably back a more conservative contender, like Cruz, because Bush “didn’t address illegal immigration, and he has a shaky record on that.”

“I was looking for him to address why he was in favor of giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in addition to giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and he never mentioned a thing,” he said. “So I’m still left with a couple questions.”