There was a moment on Wednesday evening that seemed to capture the state of the Republican race.
The cable networks repeatedly trumpeted that Donald Trump and Jeb Bush were holding dueling town hall meetings in New Hampshire, about 20 miles apart. Fox even dipped into Jeb’s appearance for a couple of minutes, but broke away when Trump started speaking. Suddenly Trump was live on CNN and MSNBC as well as Fox. In television terms, Jeb didn’t exist.
On CNN, it was practically Trump night, since after airing part of his New Hampshire presser and town hall, the network devoted the 9 p.m. hour to a substantive Chris Cuomo interview with The Donald. Trump, who had been on O’Reilly the night before, completed the cycle by calling in to “Morning Joe” yesterday morning (and telling Mika he’d pay her more than Scarborough).
In the latest CNN poll, Trump is leading Bush among Republicans voters 24 to 13 percent. A guy dismissed as a sideshow by most of the punditocracy has nearly twice the support of the brother and son of presidents, designated by the press early on as the man to beat.
In New Hampshire, Trump delighted in beating up on Bush:
“Have I gotten under Jeb Bush's skin? I don't know. I will tell you this. You mentioned the word skin. He said the other day one of the dumber things I have heard ever in politics when talking about Iraq that we the United States he said have to show them that we have skin in the game in order to go into Iraq. We've lost $2 trillion, thousands of lives, wounded warriors who I love all over the place, and he's talking about we have to show them that we have skin in the game? And every time a shot is fired they run?”
Trump went on to rip Bush’s past observation about illegal immigration being an “act of love” as another “really dumb” statement, declaring, “I don’t see how he’s electable.” He also declared Jeb “a low-energy person” and taunted the former Florida governor: “You know what’s happening to Jeb’s crowd just down the street? They’re sleeping!”
But Bush was awake, all right, unleashing his sharpest criticism of Trump to date by saying he “doesn’t have a proven conservative record”:
“He was a Democrat longer in the last decade than he was a Republican. Look, Mr. Trump has clearly got talent. . . . But when people look at his record, it is not a conservative record. Even on immigration where . . .the language is pretty vitriolic for sure, but hundreds of millions of dollars of costs to implement his plans is not a conservative plan.”
As the Washington Post pointed out, Bush spoke to a “sedate” crowd of about 150, while Trump did his thing with a far larger capacity crowd.
Trump’s dominance of the debate was highlighted yesterday, when Bush found himself being pressed by reporters who questioned his use of the term “anchor babies”—which he picked up from Trump, who is suddenly making birthright citizenship an issue. Jeb said he was just using a commonly accepted phrase and not embracing it.
There is no question that The Donald is a master showman and Jeb is a low-key guy who sounds like a policy wonk. Bloomberg’s John Heilemann describes his campaigning style as “joyless.”
But Jeb is also a two-term governor with a solid record on conservative issues and a deep understanding of government. Trump, as he loves to brag, is a big-time developer and reality show star with no political experience. And yet it’s Trump who has captured the moment and seized the media spotlight.
If the conventional wisdom is right, many Republican voters are enjoying their Trump flirtation, but will get more serious as the caucuses and primaries to select an actual commander-in-chief draw closer. At that point, some will defect to Jeb—or to Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and others.
But the conventional wisdom has been stunningly wrong this year. And, at the very least, Jeb Bush faces a passion gap.