Debate performance adds to Jeb Bush’s campaign struggles

The big moment: Jeb Bush’s exchange with Marco Rubio on missed Senate votes, from the debate transcript

BUSH: John (Harwood), can I say something up here, because I'm a constituent of the senator, and I helped him, and I expected that he would do constituent service, which means that he shows up to work. He got endorsed by the Sun-Sentinel, because he was the most talented guy in the field. He's a gifted politician.

But, Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally the Senate, what is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?

You can campaign or just resign and let someone else take the job. There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck in Florida as well. They are looking for a senator that will fight for them each and every day.

RUBIO: I get to respond, right?

BECKY QUICK: 30 seconds.

RUBIO: Well, it's interesting. Over the last few weeks, I have listened to Jeb as he's walked around the country and said that you're modeling your campaign after John McCain; that you're going to launch a furious comeback the way he did, by fighting hard in New Hampshire and places like that, carrying your own bag at the airport.

Do you know how many votes John McCain missed when he was carrying out that furious comeback that you’re now modeling after?

BUSH: He wasn't —

RUBIO: Jeb, I don't remember — well, let me tell you, I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's vote record. The only reason why you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.


Here’s the bottom line. I’m not — my campaign is going to be about the future of America. It’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage. I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush. I’m not running against Governor Bush. I’m not running against anyone on this stage. I am running for president because there is no way we can elect Hillary Clinton to continue the policies —


HARWOOD: We're moving to Governor Bush.

He started as the front-runner, the man with a fundraising juggernaut, a dynastic last name and a conservative record governing a state crucial to Republicans’ presidential chances.

Now Jeb Bush is treading water, a notion confirmed by a poorly reviewed performance in Wednesday night's debate at the University of Colorado. His telegraphed attack on the missed Senate votes of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow Floridian and longtime ally, was easily dispatched in an exchange that could come to define Bush's candidacy.

“You saw Marco Rubio rip his still-beating heart out of his chest and stomp on it,” Iowa radio host Steve Deace said in the post-debate “spin room,” where he was supporting Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. “If (Bush) stays in, it’s just because he’s a glutton for punishment and he wants to descend into self-parody.”

Bush soldiered on Thursday in a trip to New Hampshire, a state critical to his hopes.

"It's not on life support," Bush told reporters in Portsmouth, referring to his campaign. "We have the most money. We have the greatest organization. We're doing fine."

Bush's campaign and an allied super PAC have combined to raise more than the rest of the GOP field by a wide margin, but the campaign has also spent aggressively. In the wake of a weaker-than-expected third quarter of fundraising, the Bush campaign cut staff and expenses.

Bush’s backers stressed his accomplishments in Florida and pointed out that he still has the money and profile to hang around for the long haul. While outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson have sucked up energy and polling support, Bush’s team sees Rubio as its chief rival for the “establishment” corner of the electorate — in the hopes that the political newcomers fade once the primaries approach and voters get more serious.

Establishment hopefuls scuffle

Other contenders in that space are Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who lashed out Wednesday night at the novice candidates, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who challenged Bush during the debate on fantasy football, of all things.

Bush said the federal government should look into regulating daily fantasy sports gambling websites, as states — including Georgia — are starting to crack down on the activity.

Christie jumped in: “Are we really talking about getting the government involved in fantasy football? … How about we get the government to do what they’re supposed to be doing: secure our borders, protect our people, and support American values and American families. Enough on fantasy football. Let people play. Who cares?”

It was another moment where Bush was overshadowed, in a debate where he had less time to speak than all the candidates on stage except Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

“It was like air was coming out of the balloon,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“I don’t know what the problem is,” Steele said. “He just can’t find that space where he’s comfortable with the idea that this is a new space. It’s a conventional campaign that’s being buffered by an unconventional setting, unconventional candidates, unconventional rhetoric, and a base that is not as turned on or tuned into the Bush idea.”

Bush’s biggest Georgia cheerleader is Republican fundraiser Eric Tanenblatt, who worked for President George H.W. Bush, Jeb’s father. And Tanenblatt was not backing off his candidate on Thursday.

“I know the Washington echo chamber is doing their typical post-debate spin, but when the dust settles in the next few days I don’t know that there was a whole lot accomplished by any candidate,” Tanenblatt wrote in an email.

“The debates are just part of a long process,” he added. “I feel very confident about the campaign, its strategy and the organization being built across the country.”

Scorn for CNBC

Tanenblatt also added to the pile-on of the CNBC moderators, whom he said asked "inappropriate" questions. The candidates, the crowd and the commentariat all accused the moderators of bumbling and asking questions that seemed to come out of an opposition research book.

“It has the possibility of being a very important moment in American politics because it so clearly demonstrates the need for a change in format,” Carson told reporters in Lakewood, Colo., on Thursday morning.

“What it’s turned into is a gotcha. That’s silly, and that’s not really helpful for anybody,” Carson said. “… I’ve asked my staff to reach out to the other campaigns to talk about a change in format.”

Fewer voters were tuned in this time, too.

Wednesday's clash drew an average of 14 million viewers, a sharp drop from the more than 20 million who watched the first two debates on Fox News and CNN. The debate was up against a World Series baseball game, and business-focused CNBC is a more obscure channel than the news giants.

The next debate is coming up quickly, Nov. 10 in Milwaukee, hosted by Fox Business Channel and the Wall Street Journal. Like the previous debates, Fox Business plans to hold an undercard "kids' table" matchup for lower-polling candidates, while candidates reaching an average of 2.5 percent in four national polls will be on the prime-time stage.