ATLANTIC, Iowa (AP) – A steady debate performance may have helped keep Jeb Bush's campaign afloat.
But if Bush was good in Tuesday night's prime-time face-off, rival Marco Rubio was probably better. And the two Republican candidates' conflicting trajectories played out in Iowa on Wednesday as a confident Rubio worked to sustain his progress while Bush pursued a new strategy to regain his footing in a contest he was once expected to dominate.
As he did the night before, Bush shifted his attention away from his Republican rivals and toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton as he campaigned in the state set to host the nation's first nominating contest in less than three months.
Bush insisted he wasn't criticizing Rubio, even after declaring "I'm a better bet" to defeat Clinton.
"I'm not being critical of anybody, with that statement, just for the record," Bush told reporters after an event. He reminded voters of his political experience: "I've been vetted. I've been tested. I'm an open book."
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At roughly the same time, Rubio called for a new generation of Republican leadership in remarks to 400 supporters in eastern Iowa, a mantra designed to contrast the 44-year-old Rubio with 62-year-old Bush and 68-year-old Clinton, both members of political families from decades past.
"What are we waiting for?" Rubio implored. "The time to act is now." He said the election is a "generational choice where we must decide what kind of country America will be in the 21st century."
Bush won an endorsement Wednesday from Bob Dole, the former longtime Kansas senator and Republican presidential nominee who will serve as the campaign's chairman for veterans. The endorsement brought a highly respected establishment figure into Bush's camp, although one who, at 92, illustrates the generational difference Rubio is talking about.
Differences between the rivals' messages have never been starker.
For the first time in the monthslong primary contest, Rubio, a Florida senator, appears to have a distinct political advantage over his onetime mentor, a former Florida governor whose allies raised more than $100 million earlier in the year to promote his candidacy.
Immediately after Tuesday's debate, news surfaced that New York hedge fund manager Cliff Asness was joining Rubio's finance team. It was the second such boost in as many weeks. Billionaire investor Paul Singer recently announced his support for Rubio in a letter to his extensive network of Republican fundraisers, encouraging them to follow his lead.
Such donor enthusiasm has given Rubio's campaign, a tightly run financial operation, the confidence to increase hiring.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant also reported a surge of online donations Tuesday night that nearly crashed the campaign's website.
While Rubio's path is crystalizing, Bush's is murky at best.
He reminded Iowa voters of his opposition to abortion rights Wednesday, but he suggested his allies should avoid going after Rubio on the issue. Rubio opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, though he supports an exception to protect the life of the mother. Bush favors the right to abortion in those circumstances.
Bush's emphasis on experience over pizazz — a former two-term governor who called himself a "nerd" Wednesday — won over Iowa Republican Shirley Andre during an evening town hall in a western Des Moines suburb.
"With the state of our nation, we just need someone who has gotten things done," said Andre, a retired state worker who had been weighing Bush and Rubio, whom she said "is still a great candidate."
Bush probably bought his struggling campaign some time with a solid debate performance in Milwaukee, after weak showings in earlier debates. His attack on Rubio's spotty Senate attendance record in last month's debate backfired, causing concern among his network of donors and supporters already anxious about a sudden round of staffing reductions.
"The mood was certainly upbeat" after Tuesday's debate, Bush donor Al Hoffman said.
Bush will find out soon whether donors will continue to write checks.
He heads from Iowa to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he will headline a midday fundraiser Thursday and host a town hall meeting. After campaigning in New Hampshire on Thursday and Friday, he has another series of fundraising events in New York this weekend and plans for more into December.