Salem, New Hampshire (CNN)After Mitt Romney lost the presidential race in 2012, his advisers readily admitted that one of their biggest mistakes was failing to define him before the Democrats did.
Jeb Bush's priority: November 2016
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Jeb Bush took notice.
In town halls and intimate events across the country, the former Florida governor and likely 2016 presidential candidate is seeking to mold a narrative for himself -- not as the son born with a silver spoon, but as a man who charted his own course by marrying a woman from Mexico, starting his own business and building a life in South Florida. It's a distinct life, he argues, that lets him appeal to nontraditional Republican voters in the general election.
Speaking in New Hampshire on Thursday, Bush revealed some thinking into his likely campaign strategy, telling voters how he plans to avoid the pitfalls of previous Republican nominees who've been forced to tack to the right during the primaries or failed to rise above attacks from opponents.
"Mitt Romney was a successful, loving, caring, generous man--and he never showed it," Bush said at an event in Salem. "The simple fact is: You're going to get attacked. You have to show who you are first."
Likability is key, he added. "You can't just skip over that," he said, wading into the thinking process that voters go through about presidential candidates.
"Does he care about me? Do you like him? Does he have a sense of humor? Does he understand the fight I'm in? There's some really basic questions you have to get to first before you get to the five-point plan to help people out."
But trying to strike a balance between being too passive and showing enough fire in the belly, Bush insisted that forceful responses to attacks are still required.
"You got to pop 'em," he said, slamming his fist into his hand. "You got to push back, and then get back to the message that matters."
As Bush prepares for what's shaping to be a bloody and crowded Republican primary contest, he has largely tried to keep his focus on November 2016, looking straight past the intraparty contest by painting himself as a unifier.
In fact, he was given multiple opportunities this week to criticize Sen. Rand Paul, a GOP presidential contender, for launching a filibuster over domestic surveillance programs that Bush staunchly defends. But he largely held back.
"I'm not thinking about Sen. Paul," he said, arguing that opponents of the Patriot Act are "not as relevant" to the debate as the issues themselves.
Bush was pressed last week at a town hall in Reno, Nevada, on how he would bridge the libertarian and establishment wings of the Republican Party, a division that's especially seen drama in the early caucus state.
Taking a pragmatic approach, Bush argued that Republicans need to push past their differences and focus on winning.
"My focus will be on not turning back and getting into a food fight with people that might not agree with me completely," he said. "Put on your big boy pants and take it, you know, when someone doesn't agree with you."
And it's no secret that a lot of conservative voters don't agree with him. His support for comprehensive immigration reform or the Common Core education standards has riled conservatives to the point that it comes up at nearly every event.
"His Common Core stance is kind of a deal-breaker for a lot of people — and I mean a lot of people," said John Potucek, a state representative from New Hampshire who attended Bush's event in Concord Thursday morning.
Still, he stressed he's still open to voting for Bush.
The former governor isn't backing down from his position, trying instead to re-educate people on the controversial testing standards. Nor is he easing his view in favor of expanded legal immigration and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants already in the country that meet certain criteria.
While those positions are bound to bring fury during the primaries, Bush is banking on his ability to explain his reasoning and his experience—especially on education—as governor.
Bush is also motivated by the math.
"You got to get to 50 - or pretty close to it - to win. And to get to 50 you have to add, not subtract," he said in Portsmouth, speaking in a matter-of-fact tone. "And so you can't start subtracting in a primary, and then you always have to keep your eye on the fact that while you're doing that you can't be subtracting for the general."
Outside of the party, he believes winning requires reaching out to people who don't traditionally vote for Republicans.
"Go campaign outside your comfort zone, campaign outside of the choir," he said Wednesday.
Bipartisanship is no outlier when it comes to campaign messaging. Paul has been showcasing his partnerships with congressional Democrats to propose legislation on issues involving criminal justice reform and civil liberties. Chris Christie touts his ability to work with the Democratic-legislature in the reliably blue state of New Jersey.
For his part, Bush points to his two terms as governor in a large swing state and looks to past Republican presidents as examples—but not to his father or his brother.
"Think of Reagan," he said Wednesday in Bedford, New Hampshire. "He was a kind man and a person that didn't do victory dances on his adversaries; he embraced them."
Richard Nixon, he also said, set an example of relationship-building with his efforts to unfreeze ties with China in 1972.
"It was transformative," Bush said. "I think we should be striving for Nixon-to-China moments across the board."
Bush won applause from the roundtable in New Hampshire that his first phone calls as president would be to the Republican and Democratic leadership of both parties.
"Both parties," he said, when asked who he would call first. "You can't jam big things down peoples' throats in Washington because of the rules and because of our history, we're just not designed that way."
It's worth noting that he was responding to a question from Renee Plummer, a New Hampshire activist who hosted the roundtable event and advocates for more bipartisanship in Congress.
"I was thrilled with that," she told reporters after the event, referring to his answer. "You got me at 'working together.'"