LACONIA, N.H. -- A New Hampshire-style barbecue featuring an array of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins and a Box O’ Joe rested untouched on a folding table next to the subdued primary voters seated in neat rows.
Most in the crowd of a couple hundred were of the gray-haired persuasion, and they listened intently and politely as Jeb Bush wrapped up another wonky, sprawling stump speech here earlier this week.
The energy in the basement conference room of the Margate Hotel was as flat as the funeral home-style wallpapering, but the former Florida governor appeared unbowed as always. It’s a sunny disposition he's carried with him day in and day out, even as he struggles to revive a candidacy that has been moribund for months and is now on life support.
“I trust you entirely,” Bush told his steely faced New Hampshire audience. “I totally trust you. The pundits have already written the story. They’re already saying it’s over. They’re talking about this in the past tense. That’s not true. You all have a chance to decide next Tuesday how you want our country to look.”
After “humbly” asking for the support of everyone in the room -- and further pleading with them to convince a few of their neighbors to vote for him, too -- Bush had one more thing to add before opening the floor to questions.
“I’m excited about this,” he said. “And I honestly believe you’re looking at the next president of the United States.”
It was a striking proclamation for a man who has almost a half-dozen fellow Republican candidates to leapfrog in the polls before he can even get back into contention.
But according to the people who work for his campaign, Bush does indeed remain almost entirely unperturbed by his diminished prospects. He thinks he's still got this, even if almost no one else does.
In interviews, public events and debates, Bush has resisted any major adjustments to the solemn and subdued posture he has brought to the campaign trail since day one, even as it has been clear for the better part of a year that the electorate is responding to the shinier objects in the field.
He began the campaign as the consensus favorite to win the Republican nomination and raised more than $100 million through his super PAC before even officially entering the race. But since then, Bush’s decline in relevance has been as steady as it has been disconcerting for a storied GOP clan that has already produced two commanders-in-chief and isn’t used to being embarrassed in the family business of presidential politics.
In an effort to help salvage any signs of life from the wreckage, former first lady Barbara Bush hit the campaign trail here in New Hampshire on Thursday night on behalf of her son. And the famously frank nonagenarian had no compunctions about expressing how dumbfounded she is over the current state of affairs regarding Jeb's diminished role in GOP presidential politics -- an outrage that her husband has expressed more privately, according to sources.
In an interview on “CBS This Morning” that aired on Friday, Barbara Bush appeared especially taken aback -- all but squeezing the oysters out of her famous pearls -- when her son told her that Donald Trump regularly uses profanity at his rallies when children are present.
“He’s like a comedian or a showman or something,” the former first lady scoffed. “I don’t know how women can vote for someone who said what he said about Megyn Kelly. It’s terrible. And we knew what he meant, too.”
Jeb's place in the White House was long viewed in the Bush family as being one rung below pre-destination. He was the smarter and more driven son -- the one with the inquisitive mind and empathetic touch.
But when both he and his brother ran for governor in 1994, he lost in Florida, while George won an upset victory in Texas. Jeb had to wait his turn.
That 1994 cycle did more than just reset plans and expectations. It provided an early window into some of the hurdles that the Bush family is still dealing with today. Put simply, George W. Bush was a natural when it came to campaigning. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, approaches the art like he’s studying a new language on Rosetta Stone.
And yet, the Bush campaign has been reluctant to send the nation’s 43rd president -- still popular among many Republican primary voters -- out on the campaign trail in 2016 on behalf of the man who's still confident he will be the 45th, reasoning that he cannot be seen as trying to save his less charismatic brother.
But Bush’s lineage and the implicit implications of his own struggles on the trail still come up at just about all of his events. And he does not shy from them.
At a stop at a manufacturing company in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, on Thursday, the man who introduced Jeb noted that his old brother had been standing at the very same spot 16 years ago.
“I love my dad. I love my brother. So I’m a proud Bush," Jeb responded. "But I also know when you run for president, you have to tell your story.”
In Bush’s camp, the thinking goes that Jeb has to save himself in New Hampshire, finishing ahead of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, if he wants to remain a viable candidate heading into the South Carolina primary. Then and only then will the time come to deploy the nation’s 43rd president, who famously lost the 2000 New Hampshire primary by 19 points to John McCain but then came back for a campaign-saving victory in the Palmetto State.
Whether he will make it that far is another issue entirely. The Bush campaign is grappling with the prospect of a debilitating letdown on Tuesday that at this point seems more probable than not, and the candidate himself remains unable to escape the symbolism of doom.
In Pittsfield, Bush tried on a firefighter suit -- scant protection, perhaps, for the proverbial conflagration that may be about to incinerate his high-priced campaign infrastructure on Tuesday.
If there is one word that best describes Jeb Bush the candidate, “earnest” is perhaps the most apt. He doesn’t bat an eye when he gives out his personal email address -- email@example.com -- to members of the general public, and still often responds in mere minutes to reporters’ inquiries.
He beams whenever he's asked convoluted policy questions and shirks when asked to defend his viability.
Bush's advisers have encouraged him to take a harder line against Trump, which he has done with a little more enthusiasm as of late. But it’s a slightly more aggressive posture that remains uncomfortable for a man who exudes old-fashioned WASPiness with his every fiber.
Jeb Bush isn't a stiff. Far from it. He can be as funny as he is substantive, carrying with him a heavy dose of goofy self-deprecation.
"His supporters would do a lot less hand-wringing about his prospects there if Jeb wore a GoPro camera and people could see how nimble, loose and funny he's become on the trail," said Nicolle Wallace, a former top adviser to George Bush and a general fan of the family. "I don't know how this ends, but he's found his groove as the anti-Trump grownup in the race and the only Republican who embraces the greatest Bush family trait of all: humility."
There may indeed still be a market for such a man among the New Hampshire Republican electorate.
New Hampshire voters have a history of breaking late, and with another debate on the horizon before Tuesday’s primary, Bush still has a chance to make a last-minute move that would make him viable heading into South Carolina.
“He gave a lot of information, you know?” one older woman said to a friend as she left the town hall in Laconia. “His actual plan.”
Bush's default setting is to shirk quick one-liners in favor of lengthy explanations. He also listens to people and engages them in real conversations, occasionally even changing his position in mid-sentence when he believes that the facts warrant it.
It’s a far cry from the tactics that his former political protege Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) prefers on the stump. Rubio is as punchy and scripted as Bush is methodical and often improvisational.
During a jam-packed town hall meeting at Fisk Elementary School in Salem -- the same venue where Bush attracted a fraction of the crowd size back in the fall -- Rubio delivered a highly energetic stump speech that was as heavy on applause lines as Bush is typically light on them.
"No one running for president in the Republican Party can unify this party faster or better than I can,” Rubio said in summing up his case neatly. “And I will.”
As Bush often appears to be weighing both sides of an argument, Rubio is more like the former Florida governor’s self-certain older brother.
Rubio never veers from his full-steam-ahead approach that typically involves telling his crowds what he knows they want to hear, rather than what the candidate thinks they should care about.
On Wednesday, for example, the Florida senator offered an especially incongruous criticism of President Barack Obama for addressing Muslim-Americans at a Baltimore mosque -- an outreach effort that Rubio claimed was an example of the president’s “always pitting people against each other.”
In spite of the obvious problems with this assessment on its face, Rubio paid no political price for it.
In today’s nuance-free campaign environment, it is Rubio’s message that appears to be resonating with Republican primary voters, as Bush in comparison appears like a relic to a more genteel era in comparison.
Still, New Hampshire voters have surprised us many, many times before. Bush has a strong ground game in place here, and his loyal campaign advisers are intent on pulling out all of the stops before Tuesday’s primary.
Desperation can be a useful tool in presidential politics. And there is no doubt that Jeb Bush is desperate.