DERRY, N.H. — Catherine Briggs, 89, smiled Tuesday as she recalled the days of Prescott Bush and said she’s supporting the presidential campaign of the late Connecticut senator’s grandson, Jeb Bush, “because his mother said so.”
Businessman and former New Hampshire state senator Bruce Keough praised the former Florida governor’s “demeanor and tone.” A group of cheerful college students wore bright red T-shirts with “Jeb!” across the front.
For Bush, who formally jumped into the 2016 race Monday in Miami, his first step onto the campaign trail as an official candidate was in part a well-choreographed New England homecoming. The son and brother of presidents drew a well-heeled crowd of about 300 — and one that holds warm feelings for his family — to a town-hall meeting here.
They clapped appreciatively when he mentioned the recent 90th birthday of his mother, Barbara Bush, and chuckled when he teasingly compared his gubernatorial record to that of his brother, George W. Bush.
“If you ever see my good friend Rick Perry or even my brother, George W., tell them we created more jobs in Florida,” Jeb Bush said, referencing the former Texas governors.
But outside the stuffy, bunting-strewn Adams Memorial Opera House in one of this state’s Republican enclaves, a dozen protesters — mostly conservatives who toted signs scrawled with “Stop Common Core” and “No Banker Left Behind” — held court as passing cars beeped in solidarity.
“I reject Jeb’s candidacy. He’s another big-government hack,” said Merav Yaakov, 47, a libertarian-leaning Republican.
The side-by-side gatherings illustrated the uphill climb that Bush, 62, faces in New Hampshire, which hosts the first-in-the-nation primary and could be critical to his chances of winning the 2016 Republican nomination. The challenges were also reflected in his remarks, in which he strove to recast his enthusiasm for immigration reform and education standards as an outgrowth of conservative principles rather than a departure from them.
On the economy, he called for a “field of dreams” where companies feel empowered to grow, and pledged to pull back regulations. Pressed on Social Security, he said the “next president is going to have to try again” to revamp and sustain the program.
Roaming the theater’s hardwood floors in rolled-up sleeves, Bush spoke not as a political heir running to restore his family to power, but a professorial and hard-charging executive who has the experience necessary to return Republicans to the White House.
Bush also insisted that he is a modern candidate — one who could win over a rapidly changing electorate with compassion for poor and minority Americans that Republicans have long struggled to attract. On same-sex marriage, Bush said he remains opposed but spoke out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“I don’t know if you saw the rally for my announcement. It’s a different kind of crowd,” Bush said Tuesday. “Miami is a different kind of place, I got that. But it’s reflective of the diversity of the state. They know that I care because I was a governor that cared. I didn’t say, ‘You’re not good or you’re better,’ or anything like that.”
His balancing act between his moderate temperament and conservative impulses was everpresent. When asked about Pope Francis’s warnings on man-made climate change, which were revealed in a leaked paper letter to bishops this week, Bush — a convert to Catholicism — called him an “extraordinary leader” but said he disagreed with the pontiff’s conclusions.
“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops, from my cardinals, or from my pope,” Bush said, adding that religious leaders “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”
Bush, who sits near the top of a very large GOP pack in the polls, remains the beneficiary of goodwill from his party’s establishment figures. Local Republican officials wearing pins with their titles arrived in droves, taking up seats marked “reserved” near the front. And his skills on the stump have improved since he began exploring a bid six months ago, with more comfort under the glare of cameras and among activists.
Still, the visceral reluctance of many on the right to hear him out remains an obstacle. Attendees, even those who have labored as volunteers for past Bush family campaigns, said he must do more to introduce himself and take nothing for granted here.
“People just don’t know him,” said Ovide LaMontagne, a social conservative leader in the state who worked on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign. “They see something about him that is solid, that is centered. Beyond that, they’re not really sure what to think.”
The legacy of his brother’s administration also hovered. In a Fox News interview before the town-hall meeting, Bush was asked whether he’d support “enhanced interrogation,” which critics have called torture. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “It was appropriate at the time.”
Bush also took a shot in the interview at the Democratic front-runner. “Her record of accomplishment, compared with mine as governor, I’ll put that record up against Hillary Clinton any day of the week,” he said.
Later, a gesture struck an emotional chord after nearly an hour of Bush calmly weighing in on the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group and federal spending.
When Lorraine Butler, spoke of her own troubles and the need for the disabled to be accepted and encouraged in the workforce, Bush walked over to embrace her. “Life is a gift from God,” he said to applause.
Barry Devine, 74, a Vietnam veteran, was moved but otherwise gave Bush’s performance a mixed review: “I showed up early and had to watch him do Fox for an hour. I didn’t come to see the Hannity show. Rookie mistake. We should be the priority.” That said, he added, “I’ll try to keep an open mind.”
The Bush record in the Granite State is hardly a history of juggernauts. While George H.W. Bush won here in 1988, he lost the 1980 New Hampshire primary as did George W. Bush in 2000.
With the earlier Iowa caucuses becoming a battle among the right wing of the Republican field, Jeb Bush allies acknowledge that he must either win or come close in New Hampshire — or risk seeing his status as a favorite of the GOP’s business-friendly coalition collapse.
“He’s asked me about what he has to do and I told him it’s all about the phone calls,” said Keough, who endorsed Bush before the event. “Town halls are part of the equation, not everything.”
Bush strategist David Kochel, who watched from the rafters as Bush spoke, said Bush’s plan is to “earn” victory. “He’ll go anywhere, talk to anyone, take any questions,” Kochel said.
Bush was lighthearted about his path ahead. Stepping into a waiting SUV after shaking hands and signing glossy photos, he grinned when asked about the presidential aspirations of real-estate mogul Donald Trump, who announced his campaign Tuesday: “I’ve got nothing to say about that.”
When questioned about his standing in New Hampshire, he shrugged.
“It’s a long slog, man,” he said. “Today’s the first day.”