02-19-2017  10:41 pm      •     
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — For months, Jeb Bush's campaign insisted it was too early.

Too early to worry about the Republican presidential candidate's sluggish poll numbers. Too early to fret over the rise of unorthodox candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Too early to question if the one-time front-runner is merely a pedestrian candidate.

But with just over three months until primary voting gets underway in Iowa, and Bush still mired in the middle of the crowded GOP field, some supporters fear it could soon be too late.

"The moment is now," said New Hampshire State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, reflecting the sense of urgency among nearly two dozen Bush supporters interviewed this past week by The Associated Press.

On Friday, Bush signaled to supporters he understood the need to make a change. Faced with slower-than-expected fundraising, the campaign announced sweeping spending cuts, including a 40 percent payroll reduction, that will deplete staff at its Miami headquarters and refocus resources in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — the first four states to hold nominating contests.

"It means I have the ability to adapt," Bush said of the changes. "The circumstances when we started the election were different."

But interviews with supporters in early states reveal concerns that extend far beyond the campaign's allocation of resources. There are fears Bush is failing to distinguish himself from his rivals, despite a month of aggressive television advertising. Many said they were eager to see Bush be more assertive and forceful in debates, in his TV ads and at campaign appearances.

They worry he may not be capable of doing so.

"God gives us our personalities and our looks and we can't help that," said Robert Rowe, another New Hampshire state representative who is switching his allegiance from Bush to Ohio Gov. John Kasich. "We are who we are."

Said Bush supporter Steven Zumbach, an attorney from Des Moines, Iowa: "He's going to need to take some risk. Unless he does something like that, it's going to be difficult."

Bush campaign aides say they understand the anxiety, but blame it on an unusual political season that has diverted attention away from more traditional candidates — not a sign of weakness in the former Florida governor. Bush himself has urged voters to stay patient, reminding them that candidates who sit at the top of polls at this stage in the race often fade.

"Four years ago Herman Cain was the front-runner. Two weeks prior to that it was Rick Perry," Bush said Wednesday during a campaign stop in Nevada. "Both are great guys, but they didn't win the nomination."

Indeed, many voters in Iowa and New Hampshire wait until just before their states' contests to settle on a candidate. The outcomes in those first two states have ripple effects in South Carolina, Nevada and other states that quickly follow.

There are also signs of volatility in the GOP contest. After spending the summer and fall atop the Republican field, Trump appears to be losing ground in Iowa to Carson, an untested politician with a penchant for provocative comments about Muslims and the Holocaust.

Bush is still among the candidates viewed as most electable among Republican voters, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. Six in 10 registered Republicans say he could possibly win a general election — putting him just below Trump and about tied with Carson atop the field.

Most of those interviewed by the AP said they remain loyal to Bush. Even as his campaign fundraising slows, they see his heavily funded super PAC as an advantage that could help him outlast his rivals. They believe his methodical approach to issues and record as Florida governor make him the most qualified Republican to be president.

But they wonder if there's room for a candidate like Bush in a race where voters seem eager to voice their displeasure with Washington and anyone with a history in politics.

"Within about a month, he's going to need to step forth," said Barbara Smeltzer, a longtime GOP activist from Dubuque, Iowa. "He's going to have to start to show some muscle."

Added Carroll Duncan, a councilwoman in Dorchester County, South Carolina, "My main concern is that his message is not getting out there. That's up to his campaign to turn that around."

Bush aides say they've been trying to do just that, with both the campaign and Right to Rise super PAC blanketing the airwaves with advertisements. Right to Rise accounted for one of every two 2016 presidential ads last week, according to information collected by Kantar Media's CMAG advertising tracker.

Right to Rise began its media blitz the week of Sept. 15 with a $1.3 million buy in New Hampshire and Iowa, expanding to South Carolina the following week. The super PAC has spent about $2 million each week on ads, CMAG shows. The group's media plans continue through mid-February — by which time it will have spent $42 million if it follows through on all of its airtime reservations.

Bush's campaign is trying to supplement the ad spending with a large footprint on the ground in early states. The campaign has 12 paid staffers in New Hampshire, 10 in Iowa, eight in Nevada and seven in South Carolina.

The overhaul the campaign announced Friday aims to boost those numbers. Supporters hope the changes will be enough to keep Bush afloat through a long, and so far surprising, campaign.

"Jeb is not spectacular," said Lynn Stewart, a state assemblyman from Henderson, Nevada. "But he's solid and steady."

___

Associated Press writers Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, Julie Bykowicz and Steve Peoples and AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson contributed to this report.

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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