Behold: Jeb the Underdog

So what do you do if you are the dynastic heir to the Republican presidential nomination, a guy who has been projected into the White House by friends and family for more than two decades, and the favorite of moneyed elites in the party of moneyed elites, when your Invisible Primary campaign has been a boring nothing-burger alternating with the occasional p.r. disaster? Yes, you got it: you defy the conventional wisdom on which you once depended and run as the upstart underdog whose incomparable resume, policy genius and sheer grit will eventually become apparent to the voters who think they already know you and just ain’t that impressed.

That seemed to be the direction in which Jeb Bush was headed in his official announcement speech in South Florida yesterday. If you don’t buy my take, check out what one of Jeb’s biggest cheerleaders, Bloomberg Politics‘ Mark Halperin, had to say (in the course of giving the speech an A-minus grade in Halperin’s famously vague report-card system):

Given the non-stop CW muttering about a stalled presidential effort (along with middling poll numbers to back up the charge), he needed to give an exceptionally strong performance – and succeeded. Buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd composed of many genuine, long-time supporters, he gave the best speech he’s unfurled since beginning his White House quest, with‎ an energy level totally different than anything he’s demonstrated so far. Flexed dormant gubernatorial muscles to flaunt his natural leadership style, mirrored by a solid script, from which he smoothly strayed when appropriate. There will be pressure from nervous supporters and staffers that he maintain this fresh assertive determination, but he at last indicated he has the stomach and the fire for the tough nomination—and general—fights.

See what I mean? The “CW” is that Jeb’s campaign has stalled, says Mr. CW, who is clearly annoyed that the man supported by all of his Republican friends has embarrassed him by failing to pull off the shock-and-awe intimidation of the field he was expected to execute. But now, flexing and flaunting his vast talents (he’s bilingual!), the Really Big Man of the field is rising Phoenix-like from months of losing the morning. Was yesterday’s speech a game-changing moment? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Now all mocking aside, most candidates get a bump in the polls from the positive attention surrounding carefully staged and timed announcement events. It will be interesting to see if Jeb, whose name ID is already near-universal, will get one as well; if he does, particularly in the general election polls that are essential to his electability argument, it might well give him the opportunity to reboot the whole enterprise. But his built-in problems (e.g., his last name, his screw-you to conservative activists on immigration and Common Core) haven’t gone away, nor have his competitors.

Speaking of which: one of Halperin’s colleagues at Bloomberg Politics, Jonathan Ferziger, notes today that Sheldon Adelson’s Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, has been thumping the tubs for Marco Rubio’s candidacy since April. Rubio is in every sense an existential threat to Bush, and very soon we’ll see if Team Jeb decides to take him down a few notches with some malevolent attacks on his lack of executive experience and his clumsy personal finances (the latter will have to be deftly handled so that it does now draw inadvertent attention to Bush’s extracurricular career of getting paid big money by shady people for doing nothing). If they do, and Bush draws the inevitable remonstrances for violating the Eleventh Commandment and breaking his own earlier promise to run a positive campaign, then he may well say: “Hey, what can I do? I’m an underdog!”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.