The bold move by presumed GOP frontrunner Jeb Bush to shake up his campaign
before he's even officially kicked it off could reflect deeper problems with his candidacy, pundits and political insiders warn.
On Monday, just one week before he is expected to formally toss his hat in the ring, Bush announced that 39-year-old Danny Diaz, a sharp-elbowed political operative, would serve as his campaign manager. Diaz got the nod over former Mitt Romney operative Dave Kochel, who will now focus on the early primary states.
The shake-up indicates that after two months of rhetorical errors and fading poll numbers, Team Jeb now harbors no illusions over what the coming months will bring: An all-out, bare-knuckles brawl among a crowded GOP field numbering at least a dozen candidates.
As one conservative insider who has worked with Diaz on previous campaigns tells Newsmax: "Danny is hard-charging, organized, and demanding of his staff. He knows his craft well, but expect to see some no-holds-barred negative campaigning against Bush's opponents."
The brain trust running Bush's nascent campaign made the shift to the no-holds-barred Diaz because they "felt like they were losing the media battle to [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker and [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio," an unidentified source told Politico.
Diaz has not managed a major campaign before, and is mostly known for his effective use of opposition research — the gathering and skillful dissemination of negative information about an opposing candidate. By reputation, Diaz is highly energetic and aggressive — two traits that have not characterized Bush's campaign.
In late March, Bush led an ABC-Washington Post survey with 21 percent of the GOP primary vote. But as other candidates tossed their hats in the ring, the GOP field caught up.
On Tuesday, the RealClearPolitics.com poll average showed Bush nursing a slight lead over Walker, winning the support of 11.3 percent of likely GOP primary voters. Walker and Rubio were hot on his heels at 10.8 percent and 10.3 percent respectively.
A May Quinnipiac poll showed Bush, Walker, Rubio, Carson, and Huckabee all deadlocked with 10 percent of the GOP vote. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Bush and five other candidates essentially tied at 10 percent.
Charlie Black, a prominent GOP strategist and lobbyist who is neutral in the primary, tells Newsmax: "I think he's the frontrunner now among the political elites and major donors, but there is no frontrunner among the voters. The average rank-and-file Republican voter, unless they live in Florida, what they know about Jeb Bush is that he's George W.'s brother."
Black expects to see further movement in the polls once Bush formally announces, but hastens to add: "This thing is pretty wide open."
Bush strategist Mike Murphy dismisses the early polls as "noise meters." Of more immediate concern are the first three states on the primary calendar: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
To win the nomination, history suggests Bush must carve out a win in one of those three states. Odds are, that victory will not come in Iowa, where Bush has elected not to compete in the Straw Poll. Two recent surveys show the former Florida governor stuck in fifth-place there, behind Walker, Rubio, Paul, and Huckabee.
Bush's soft poll numbers may explain the decision to give Diaz a bigger role. "This isn't tiddlywinks we're playing," Bush recently told an audience in Florida.
Bush's firewall appears to be New Hampshire, where a Gravis Marketing Poll released Tuesday shows him leading Walker by 8 points. Paul placed third with 13 percent in that poll, and developer Donald Trump vaulted into the top tier of contenders with 12 percent.
A victory in New Hampshire would help Bush avoid the fate of former New York Major Rudy Giuliani, whose 2008 campaign banked heavily on a strong showing in Florida but never seemed to reach escape velocity. After a third-place finish in Florida, Giuliani withdrew from the race.
Anything less than a victory in his home state would be seen as a serious setback for Bush. But with Rubio also a popular political figure in the Sunshine State, Florida may well prove to be the decisive battleground of the 2016 GOP primary.
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol recently told Politico the big story of the 2016 cycle is "the failure of Jeb Bush to dominate." Kristol adds Bush's problems go beyond how he's run his campaign.
"What he's struggling with is something more structural," Kristol says. "The primary electorate is more averse to signing onto an establishment front-runner than they have been in past election cycles. They sense he maybe wouldn't be the best nominee against Clinton and want someone brash, someone new."
But whatever structural problems Bush's campaign may be facing, his fund-raising is spectacular.
On Tuesday the campaign invited bundlers around the country to participate in a "27 in 15" campaign. Supporters who collect $27,000 in the campaign's initial 15 days will receive an invitation to join Bush for a picnic and campaign briefing at the family's Kennebunkport, Maine, residence on July 9 and 10.
Bush has been leveraging his family's unparalleled access to top-dollar donors ever since he announced in mid-December that he might join the race. Much of the money he's raised is going to the mother of all Super PACs, Right to Rise. The Bush PAC is expected to raise roughly $100 million by the end of July.
To put that eye-popping sum in context, Bush's brother, former President George W. Bush, currently holds the record for the most money raised by a GOP presidential contender in a campaign's first quarter. During the first four months of 1999, the former president hauled in roughly $37 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Insiders expect Right to Rise will give Bush a huge financial edge in the early primary. His nearest competitor in the money chase, Rubio, is expected to raise less than half of Bush's total.
Once Bush formally announces, his fund-raising activities will have to be structured to comport with FEC regulations. At that point, all coordination between the campaign PAC and the Bush campaign will cease.
Bush's tactical decision to slow-walk his announcement for fund-raising purposes has come under increasing fire in the mainstream media. But Terry Holt, who served as a senior strategist for George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns, and who is neutral in the race, said Jeb Bush campaign "is just living in the world that was created for them."
"It's smart," Holt told Newsmax. "Campaigns have changed, and they are extraordinarily expensive. The way we fund campaigns is fundamentally different from how we used to."
Insiders say the Bush PAC will essentially assume campaign functions beyond fund-raising and advertising.
Party insiders say Bush's Miami-based campaign will primarily manage scheduling, speechwriting, and policy research. The Super PAC, directed by Murphy out of his home in Malibu, Calif., will handle most of the polling, advertising, and grassroots organization.
Veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins openly questions that strategy.
"Super PACs can add to a campaign, but they should be the frosting on the cake, not the cake," Rollins tells Newsmax. "And this is really the cake. No one has ever used a Super PAC as a campaign, and that's obviously what's being set up here."
As for the campaign's early difficulties, recent history suggests it is way too soon to predict what that portends for next year's primaries.
In the 2008 campaign, for example, Arizona Sen. John McCain fell from front-runner status so hard that his campaign had to let over 50 staffers go. At one point, nine members of his staff resigned from his campaign en masse. But despite the turmoil, McCain went on to win the nomination — and he did so with far less money and strategic expertise than Bush will enjoy.
Ron Kaufman, a former adviser to Mitt Romney, attributed Bush's slow start on the campaign to simply being a bit out of practice.
"Jeb has not run in 14 years," Kaufman told The Washington Post, "and he's getting his sea legs. Even if you're Roger Clemens, if you were retired for 14 years, it's hard to come back and immediately pitch in the World Series."
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