By KATHLEEN RONAYNE
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – Jeb Bush sought to revive a sagging campaign for president in New Hampshire on Tuesday, committing anew to a state with deep ties to his family. He’ll start from a position of weakness that some family loyalists say is of his own making.
Eager to distinguish himself from his family legacy at the outset of his 2016 bid, Bush failed to tap the support of many longtime friends in the state. Many in the old Bush network now say they’ve picked another candidate to support or are staying out of the primary process altogether.
"Folks who had historically been with his father and his brother and were looking to maybe participate in his campaign were basically ignored," said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who endorsed Bush last week and is now a top backer of his campaign.
"A lot of those people moved on," Gregg said.
Even now, as Bush returns to New Hampshire for a three-day swing on his "Jeb Can Fix It" tour and shifts staff up from his Miami headquarters, some prominent Bush family supporters say the campaign still hasn’t contacted them.
John Stabile, a four-time state Republican Party chairman who served as finance chairman for George H.W. Bush’s presidential bids, said he’s not alone among Bush advocates who expected to get a call from Jeb Bush – and have not.
"It’s been mind-boggling to me that the people we worked with for a long time never heard from anybody," said Stabile, who’s unsure if he’ll endorse any candidate this time around.
Having started the 2016 campaign as the GOP’s early front-runner, Bush has tumbled in preference polls as voters flock to political outsiders such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
"I do not know any people who are strong supporters of the governor," said Bruce Perlo, chairman of the Grafton County GOP, referring to Bush. "Maybe he’s got bad advisers, maybe he doesn’t understand the national scene, maybe he doesn’t understand New Hampshire. I don’t know – there’s something that’s not gelling for him."
After a lackluster performance in the last GOP debate, Bush shook up his campaign and refocused on New Hampshire. Aides have said this week’s bus tour will be the first of long-stretches of time in the state, where Bush plans to keep holding town hall-style meetings while adding more informal "retail" stops where he can chat at length with small groups of voters.
"I do think he’s running a classic New Hampshire campaign, which is exactly what’s going to benefit him the most," Gregg said.
Rich Killion, Bush’s senior New Hampshire adviser, says the campaign is going after "every vote and everybody," and will be well-positioned to turn out supporters on Election Day.
"That can only be done through New Hampshire shoe leather and hard and disciplined follow-up," Killion said.
Bush has a dozen paid staff in New Hampshire, more than any other state, and plans to add more. His campaign and an allied super PAC plan to spend at least $28 million on advertising there – almost triple their budget for any other early state, according to data provided by Kantar Media’s CMAG advertising tracker.
Those resources alone haven’t yet won over longtime Bush loyalists, either because they were ignored early – or just think it’s time for someone with a different last name.
Among them are former New Hampshire attorney general Tom Rath, former state lawmakers Doug and Stella Scamman, and former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu, all past Bush-family supporters who are now backing Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Stella Scamman said the couple did have a personal meeting with Bush, but chose Kasich because they believe it’s time for some "new players on the scene."
Mark Vincent, chairman of the Hillsborough County GOP, said party activists are worried that nominating Bush would put the party in a weak position to take on Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in the general election – and Bush’s lackluster debate performances haven’t helped persuade them otherwise.
"Maybe if Jeb continues to do a lot of appearances and a lot of town halls and what not, maybe that will make people forget the debate a little bit and they’ll give him a second look," Vincent said.
The day after Bush was overshadowed in the GOP’s third debate, he drew an overflow crowd last week to a town hall in New London. That same day in Portsmouth, a number of voters who saw him said they liked what he had to say.
But Bush strayed little from the message he’s delivered for months, pointing to his record as governor of Florida to show he’s a conservative who can get things done.
Joel Maiola, a top strategist for George W. Bush’s 2000 New Hampshire campaign who has yet to sign on with any candidate in this election, said it’s a message that’s yet to win over many voters.
"You’ve got to be a little creative and step out of the box a little bit," Maiola said. "He’s got the resume and he’s got the substance, but what’s his closing argument?"
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