It took just seconds, but Jeb Bush was already running a mini victory lap at his first campaign event following his well-received debate performance the night before.
Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger had just introduced the former Florida governor at a town hall here Friday afternoon, and Bush explained that Kinzinger typically appears on news shows for him the mornings after debates.
“Today was a little easier for him than the previous debates,” Bush said. The audience, which was packed into a small, lodge-type venue, broke out into laughter and applause.
Bush, who is polling in the low single digits just days before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, seemed to ride post-debate high on Friday as he barnstormed the northwest corner of the state. It was the first Republican debate sans Donald Trump, and voters here felt that the absence of the larger-than-life frontrunner helped Bush break through.
David Richardson, a contractor from Glidden, Iowa, said he still hasn’t made his final pick for Monday night, but he said he’s now firmly leaning toward Bush after watching Thursday’s debate on Fox News.
“He came out of his shell, you know? Trump wasn’t there to bully him. That’s the way I look at it,” Richardson said. “I think it helped all of them.”
One woman approached Bush after his event at Dordt College in Sioux Center to commend him. “You did a much better job in the debate last night last night,” she said in a comforting tone.
Bush won plaudits among some conservative pundits for appearing to have more command of the stage than in the past. And Bush, in an interview earlier Friday, argued that his best moment came when he “got the last word” in during a spat over immigration with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Levi Vander Molen, a junior at Dordt College, said he is “100%” for Cruz, but acknowledged that “Bush did better without Donald Trump on the stage.”
“I thought he did OK,” he added. “I thought he did pretty well, really.”
Still it wasn’t enough to sway Vander Molen to consider caucusing for Bush.
Will it matter in Iowa?
It’s unclear whether Bush’s debate performance and spate of positive headlines will move the needle for him in Monday’s contest. He has yet to gain traction in the state despite his super PAC, Right to Rise USA, spending close to $15 million in ads here. Bush’s campaign itself has more than 20 paid staffers on the ground in Iowa.
But it’s obvious voters are paying attention and vetting the candidates right until the end. Each of Bush’s three events Friday in northwest Iowa drew larger-than-normal crowds for Bush. This was also notable given the area where Bush was campaigning, which is largely known as Rep. Steve King’s territory — and King is heavily supporting Sen. Ted Cruz.
The former Florida governor, despite battling a cold, was in good spirits as he made his final pitch to caucus-goers. His aggressive schedule takes him from one end of the state to the other this weekend with shorter, more prolific town halls, thus giving him exposure to more voters.
But his sights are still set on New Hampshire, where he’s faring better in the poll and competing for a second place finish with four other candidates. Instead of staying in Iowa Monday night for the results, Bush — like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — will hold an event in the Granite State that night.
At a town hall in Sioux City, Bush heralded some of his rivals for being “fantastic talkers on that stage last night,” but, in an attempt to draw a contrast to his record as governor, scoffed at what he called their “really arcane discussions of filing amendments on bills that never passed.”
“It was like going to the periodontist,” he said of the debate.
In keeping with a year-long trend, Bush was asked Friday to compare himself to his brother and father, both former U.S. presidents. He made his normal quip about how he’s “better looking” than his brother and praised his father for being the “greatest man alive.”
But he also tried to underscore his own brand, while embracing his family name at the same time.
“I’m Jeb, exclamation point,” Bush said, referring to his campaign logo that notably leaves out his last name but features the punctuation mark after his first name. “I’m proud to be a Bush.”
Bush, as he’s been doing in New Hampshire, reminded voters of their prized position in the primary calendar and urged them to choose someone with a “proven record.” But he was still honing his closing message.
“I hope you’ll caucus for me at 7 a.m. — 7 p.m., excuse me,” he said to laughs at his first event in Carroll. “Don’t go at 7 a.m.”