Republican conference: Day two - Bush 'proud' of family

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

  • Published
Bush and Bush April 19, 2006 at the White House in Washington, DCImage source, Getty Images
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Over his shoulder: Jeb Bush tries to acknowledge his brother's time in the White House while saying he has his own story

On Friday morning Jeb Bush confronted the challenge of his famous family name head-on.

"You know me as George and Barbara's boy and W's brother, and I'm proud of my family," he said.

Mr Bush has been dogged for a week by questions of whether he still supported the decision of his brother, President George W Bush, to invade Iraq "knowing what we do now". After initially saying yes, then saying he misunderstood the question, he later changed his answer to no.

"I'm proud of my brother," Mr Bush said at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City on Friday.

Then, the pivot - "But I have enough self awareness to know… that I have to share my heart and tell my life story."

And so the former Florida governor spent the first part of his 20-minute speech talking about his childhood, how he met his wife in Mexico, the pride he takes in his children and his grandchildren, and his time running a real estate company in south Florida.

"I learned how to sign the front part of a paycheque," he said. "That has more value than people in Washington can understand."

A successful presidential campaign is as much about having a personal narrative that connects with voters as it is a platform to run on.

Mr Bush comes from a position of privilege from an elite family - a Democrat once quipped that his father was "born with a silver foot in his mouth" - so he has a particular challenge in putting a more everyday face on his as yet-unannounced candidacy. Friday was a step toward doing that.

It was a technique almost every candidate has used so far in Oklahoma.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the first speaker Friday morning, appearing from Washington via video, spoke of losing his parents as a teenager, working in a pool hall and having to help raise his younger sister - and how it relates to his leadership style.

"Everything I know about the Iranians I learned at the pool room," he said. "I met a lot of liars, and I know the Iranians are lying."*

Image source, Reuters
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Senator Lindsey Graham is one of a growing crowd of likely Republican presidential candidates

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made repeated references to his mother and, when talk eventually turned to foreign policy, noted that his wife was near the World Trade Center on 11 September, 2001.

"For six hours I didn't hear from her," he said, as he and his children wondered if she were still alive.

Homeland security, he said, "isn't a theory for me. It's not something you read in the history books. I lived it".

Mr Christie's particular challenge is overcoming the perception by some voters that he's overly abrasive.

Among all the actual and possible Republican candidates, he has one of the highest unfavourability ratings.

On Friday he tried to flip that perceived weakness into an asset.

Image source, Reuters
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Christie says his blunt ways should tell people "I'm willing to fight for something"

Being blunt and direct is "called survival in New Jersey", he said.

He added sometimes what he says "may make you feel good, and some days you may wince… but you'll always know what I think. If I tell you I'm willing to fight for something, I will fight to the end for it."

If the audience reaction was any measure, Mr Christie made some progress in changing minds - while Mr Bush still has work to do.

"I thought he was energising, very direct, straightforward, encouraged the crowd and really revved us up," said Amanda Smith of Edmond, Oklahoma.

Mr Bush, on the other hand, "was more structured, to me kind of like an older politician".

According to Jim Reavis from Fayetteville, Arkansas, Mr Christie was "hilarious".

"I thought he did really well, he obviously brought the floor to their feet several times," he said. "I was kind of amazed that Jeb Bush did not."

Image caption,
Jim Reavis says his two favourite candidates are Chris Christie and Scott Walker

Republican voters likely will have a record number of choices among candidates when they head to the polls in the early months of next year - which presents a conundrum for conservative voters like the ones here in Oklahoma City.

Smith says it's going to be tough for her to decide between the ones she's seen.

"Every one of them have had something that's very resonating," she says. "Of course they're all basically saying the same thing."

As the days go by different candidates will emphasise different policy points and appeal to different segments of the electorate.

But in the end the decision will likely come down to what it always does. Who do they like? Who do they trust?

And who do they think can win?

* The original version of this article misquoted Mr Graham. He said "I know the Iranians are lying" not "I know Iranians are liars". He later says: "The Iranians cheat, and they lie. They are a radical regime. They want a master religion for the world; the Nazis wanted a master race." You can watch a video of Mr Graham's full remarks here.)