BEDFORD, N.H. — “Throw that punch tonight.”
At a town hall held by Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush at McKelvie Intermediate School early Saturday afternoon, that was the message sent by one of the voters in attendance for the former Florida governor.
Comparing Bush to former heavyweight champion Mike Weaver in his 1980 title bout with John Tate, the attendee explained that both men had been battered around the first 14 rounds of the fight. But, like Weaver did against Tate, it was time for Bush to rally for the knockout blow to frontrunner Donald Trump at the Republican debate that night.
Bush seemed ready to take the fight to Trump, dismissing him as someone who “needs therapy” before a capacity crowd. "We’re not running for the backbench of the United States Senate," he said. "We’re running for the presidency of the United States.”
The crowd didn’t need to be told to clap in Bedford, and Bush even started the event late to greet several dozen voters who weren’t able to fit into the crowded auditorium. In the meantime, he was preceded on stage by his son, George P. Bush, and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge after previous Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham opened the event.
It was Ridge who set the tone that would carry throughout the event when he called on voters to come together to elect George Bush, before quickly correcting himself.
Indeed, Bush himself struck a neo-conservative tone particularly reminiscent of his brother’s posturing throughout two terms in the White House.
“Every day that we contain ISIS, they win,” he declared. “We need to destroy ISIS rather than contain it.”
At the same time, however, the former governor offered up a more measured version of the neo-conservatism of old, dismissing the worldview of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders just as quickly as he derided Trump.
“Saying you’re going to bomb the S-H-blank-blank out of ISIS,” he offered incredulously of Trump. “Is that a serious thought?”
But more than anything else, the conversation returned to Bush’s experience.
In response to question after question, he used his time in Tallahassee to frame his approach to the problems of today. Most frequently, Bush returned to his old refrains about civil service reform and his refusal to sign legislation that earned him the moniker Veto Corleone while in office.
“When people give me money,” he explained in response to a question about campaign finance, “they know my record. … I was an equal-opportunity vetoer.”
With the nation’s first primary looming on Tuesday, Bush is desperately in need of a strong finish to bounce back from a three percent result in Iowa last week.
But even his own backers didn’t seem to think he can pull it off.
“He doesn’t light up a room,” said Henry Kinich, a Bush supporter who predicted the former governor might be able to inch his way up into third place.
In the end, it didn’t seem like Bush seemed to think all that much of his chances either.
“I don’t give a you-know-what about whether I’m popular or not,” he said while discussing reforms to the Veterans Administration. “Because that is fleeting.”
And that point may have rung truer for his campaign than he intended. Woven throughout his stump speech and responses to voters were calls for optimism, civility and reflection, but rarely a call for support.
Instead of making the case for people to vote for him, Bush and his surrogates instead seemed to be fighting to define who he is — and countermanding the impressions his opponents have been able to build of him.
“The Bush thing, people are just going to have to get over it,” he said near the end of the town hall.
“I am who I am.”
William Snow contributed reporting to this article.