Jeb Bush donors try to make sense of Wednesday night

Updated 2:23 PM EDT, Thu October 29, 2015
02:50 - Source: CNN
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Story highlights

Jeb Bush's poor performance isn't yet scaring major backers away

"Jeb is a doer, not a debater," said top Washington fundraiser David Beightol. "Format was tough."

Bush campaign will continue to go after Rubio's Senate voting record

(CNN) —  

Jeb Bush’s reviews from Wednesday night’s debate were universally poor. But the power players – at least on the record – say it’s not time to turn out the lights yet, insisting that debates aren’t Bush’s strong suit anyway, and pointing to other factors such as the CNBC moderators and the high hopes and expectations coming in.

The Republican debate had the potential to re-energize Jeb Bush’s floundering presidential campaign, injecting it with optimism after deep spending cuts and continuing low poll numbers.

Instead, Bush’s fundraisers and backers were left trying to explain why the man they had poured so many dollars into still proved to be such a weak candidate, delivering what was widely seen as a meek and ineffective performance in Boulder, Colorado. Bush, speaking far less than many of his fellow candidates, took an aggressive swing at the man slowly intruding on his financial turf, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and lost badly in what emerged as the defining moment of the evening and the explosion of a half-year of simmering tension.

“I’m pretty damn glum tonight,” Bush ally and CNN political commentator Ana Navarro said after the debate, adding that Bush needs to “take the next 10 days … to really figure out how to dominate in debates.”

Related: Republican debate: Winners and losers

It may not be possible to turn around Bush’s debate performance before the next one – Nov. 10 on the Fox Business Network. For now, major Bush backers are sticking by him – saying that for Jeb it’s not about the debates.

“He’s going to break through by doing what he’s doing every other day besides Debate Day,” said Austin fundraiser Kenneth Satterlee. “Carrying out his message on the ground, that’s the strategy. Stick to it. Those polls will start to turn.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to turn off all the noise and remind oneself of why you support this man and why you know in your heart he’s the guy,” said a major fundraiser, Trey Traviesa, a former Florida legislator, “but when you do turn it off, it’s very clear that it’s about a meritocracy. And in a meritocracy, Jeb will always be at the top of the list.”

“Jeb is a doer, not a debater,” said top Washington fundraiser David Beightol. “Format was tough.”

Bush’s own analysis was along the same lines. “I’m running for president. If they’re looking for entertainer in chief, I’m probably not the guy,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash.

And asked directly about concern that Navarro and others may feel, Bush said not to panic. “It’s a long haul. Ana, hang in there, girl. It’s a long haul, baby,” he said. “A few more debates to go. I’m out-campaigning everybody. I’m working hard and we’re raising the resources.”

Won’t give up attacks on Rubio’s senate record

Rubio, meanwhile, is rising — and Wednesday night likely will be more rocket fuel.

Already, Rubio backers have been reaching out to major Republican and Bush-leaning donors, touting the younger Floridian’s performance.

Some in Florida expressed exasperation on Wednesday evening that Bush chose to turn at all on Rubio, who campaign officials called the “GOP Obama” at a donor retreat in Texas this past weekend.

“Sad to see these cheap attacks on Marco,” tweeted Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist raising money for the former governor.

Bush and Rubio, once tight personal friends, have been barreling toward conflict with one another for months, and the University of Colorado campus was where the amiability evaporated. Turning toward Rubio, two decades his junior, Bush chastised Florida’s senator for repeatedly missing votes in what seemed to be a planned assault on Rubio. With ease and aplomb, Rubio parried Bush’s lob into a forward-looking message about why America had to move past attack politics.

A Bush campaign source stressed Wednesday night that its still sees the missed votes as a successful political cudgel, citing Senate races last year in Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina where it was employed. And even as Bush world acknowledged that Rubio’s star talent would shine in moments like the debates, Bush world stressed Wednesday that they had no plans to drop the line of attack.

“He did not kill this issue,” said the Bush source. “No matter how much the electorate hates Washington and Congress, voters still want you to show up and do your job.”

“It is a long campaign,” said the source.

Related: Marco Rubio: I hate idea of Clinton White House more than missing votes

Yet this came at a time when Bush least needed it. His campaign’s decision Friday to cut operating costs by 40 percent scaled back a campaign that once pledged to “shock and awe” the rest of the Republican field. Now, the Bush campaign is speaking of retrenching to New Hampshire, and it beginning to empty its super PAC’s $100 million war chest to try and move poll numbers across the country. Nearly a month after that media campaign started, his numbers haven’t budged.

Blame CNBC?

And just as Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus did, there was also finger-pointing at the media.

Fred Zeidman, a Texas financier close with the Bush family, put it on the people asking the questions — just as many of the other candidates, as Rubio, did.

“CNBC trashed the whole debate,” Zeidman said. “They were so pathetic turning the ‘substantive’ debate into reality TV that I watched the World Series.”

Related: 2016 Republicans vs. the media

CNN’s David Chalian and Dana Bash contributed to this report