Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN)Jeb Bush painted his longtime ally Marco Rubio as a follower and Donald Trump as an "entertainer" on Wednesday, arguing in an interview with CNN's Dana Bash that he'll go the distance because of his own background as a "proven leader."
Jeb Bush on Marco Rubio: He followed my lead
In a subtle but significant swipe, Bush tried to cast a shadow on Rubio's experience as a first-term senator, saying the country has already tried a fresh face who promised hope and change, referring to President Barack Obama.
"In fact, he's been the greatest, most divisive president in modern history," the former Florida governor said while sitting at a Dunkin Donuts here. "What we need is someone with proven leadership to fix things, and I believe I have those skills."
As Bush's support has dropped dramatically in the past few months -- a new national poll had him in fifth place -- Rubio has seen a recent surge. Both are taking a slow and steady approach, hoping to peak at just the right moment before the February primaries and caucuses.
It's an awkward situation for the two men. Rubio, who served as a member of the Florida House when Bush was governor and became speaker at the end of Bush's second term, considered Bush a mentor. Both hail from Miami and are fluent in Spanish, and they're also competing for the mantle as the Republican who can help broaden the GOP base.
Pressed Wednesday on why Bush thinks voters should support him over Rubio -- who regularly says it's time to "turn the page" rather than elect "the most familiar name" -- Bush pointed to his tried-and-tested experience.
"I'm a proven leader," Bush told Bash. "I disrupted the old order in Tallahassee. I relied on people like Marco Rubio and many others to follow my leadership and we moved the needle."
Until recently, Bush has largely refrained from going directly after his former protégé. He has, however, argued that lawmakers who miss votes to campaign should have their pay docked, saying they're not doing their jobs. Many consider that a swipe against Rubio given that the Florida senator has missed more votes than any other senator this year.
"Look we had a president who came in and said the same kind of thing -- new and improved, hope and change -- and he didn't have the leadership skills to fix things," Bush said.
Talking about another one of his opponents, Bush criticized Trump for not explaining how he would pay for his recently announced tax plan and pointed out that the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation said Trump's plan would cost $10 trillion over 10 years.
"It's not a serious of a plan as it should be, but the fact that he's actually proposing something is encouraging," Bush said. "Every time he talks about policy, he's not insulting somebody. That's a good sign for the Republican primary."
Bush used Twitter on Tuesday to agree with those who would say Trump's plan looks similar to Bush's. Both would get rid of loopholes used by private equity and hedge fund managers, and both would reduce the number of tax brackets down from seven. They also propose lowering the corporate rate and the rate on capital gains, as well as eliminating the estate and alternative minimum tax.
"Finally saw Donald's 'tax plan.' Looks familiar! I'm flattered," Bush's Twitter account read. "But he should've stuck with growth & fiscal responsibility."
In the interview on Wednesday, Bush said Trump's plan would blow a "gigantic hole in the deficit" since he hasn't explained how he would raise enough revenue to offset the cost.
"But look we're going to have a chance to focus on this," Bush said. "I can't wait to hear and see what his plans are about all the other things because up until now it's really just been bluster."
The two candidates will hold dueling events in New Hampshire on Wednesday night. Asked why voters should come to his event over Trump's, Bush promised he would "listen" rather than "entertain."
"If they want to hear someone who's authentic, who has plans for the future, who has leadership skills to fix a few big complex things, who will listen to them and not necessarily entertain them, then they should come to my event," he said. "Or come to both, I don't care. I'm happy to compare and contrast."
A new Suffolk University poll released Wednesday indicates is in Bush in fifth place nationally at 8%. Trump takes the top spot at 23%, followed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina at 13%, and Rubio at 9%.
It's yet another survey showing that Bush is struggling to gain traction more than three months after launching his White House bid.
The candidate said Wednesday that the race is no longer a "marathon" as he likes to say.
"I've changed it. It's a triathlon, now," he continued. "Even longer."
Bash said she spoke to a donor who lamented that Bush's donors "keep investing in a company and, as a shareholder, we're not seeing any sales."
Bush, however, continues to keep a long gaze and focus on next winter. He cited John McCain's comeback in 2008 as an example of the ebb and flow of campaigns. Bush said he saw McCain in October 2007 at the airport in Atlanta, alone and carrying his own bag.
"And he won the nomination," Bush said. "People knew that he could lead, and over time, that's what people in New Hampshire do, they decide who presidents are going to be."
Bush expressed confidence in his campaign's plan, one that relies heavily on its organizational strength and its determination to stay focused on sharing his story as governor.
"I'm convinced I'm going to win the Republican nomination," he said. "I'm going to do it in a way that will actually make it possible to win the general election, as well. I am who I am. I think people want authenticity."
He pointed to his record of reducing the size of government in Florida, cutting taxes, and creating a privatized voucher program for students in his state — all examples that he says makes him a "disruptor."
"I mean ultimately this is not about the loudest, you know, it's not entertainment. We're not auditioning for some kind of show here," he said. "We're running for president to the United States and who sits behind the big desk matters."
So at one point in the triathlon is he?