Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

The Old-Fashioned Way

Ohio Gov. John Kasich accurately summarized the race for the Republican presidential nomination: "Frankly, I thought Jeb was just going to suck all the air out of the room, and it just hasn't happened."

That's Jeb Bush, of course, the former Florida governor, who formally announced his candidacy this week. The landscape looks very different today than it did six months ago, when he unofficially started running.

In national polls, Bush attracts only about 10 percent of GOP voters, putting him in a virtual tie with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. More damaging is a Monmouth University poll that finds Bush's favorable rating dropping sharply since April, from 49 percent to 40 percent.

"Jeb Bush was supposed to take the stage with the aura of a favorite, but his numbers don't support that," says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth survey. "The GOP electorate overall is lukewarm toward him, and most conservative voters are even more negative."

Polls are certainly superficial at this stage, and Bush possesses enormous assets, primarily a huge campaign war chest. As Republican strategist Rick Wilson told Politico: "The 'shock and awe' didn't work out, but you cannot write off a guy who's going to start with $100 million in the bank."

Still, Bush's "aura" of inevitability has been punctured. And his best argument, his electability, has been undermined. The question is why.

Some of his problems are personal. Fumbling reflections on his brother's invasion of Iraq are a graphic reminder that Jeb last ran for office in 2002, long before the age of Twitter and Facebook. "There's a little rust on him," former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, a Bush ally, told the New York Times.

More seriously, Bush seems ill-suited to capturing the populist fervor that's infecting both parties this season.

In his announcement speech, he railed against the "pampered elites" who have created the "mess in Washington." Yet can the son and brother of former presidents -- and grandson of a Wall Street banker-turned-senator from Connecticut -- really campaign as a rebellious outsider? Doubtful.

Bush is right to say that running a large state provides good preparation for the White House. Before two sitting senators -- John McCain and Barack Obama -- ran against each other in 2008, four of our five previous presidents had been governors.

But Jeb was first elected during the last century, and repeated references to his tenure in Tallahassee can sound pretty stale, opening him to the charge -- from Republicans as well as Democrats -- that he is the candidate of yesterday, not tomorrow.

Bush insists that he will "show my heart and tell my story," and he is correct to think that connecting on a personal level with a compelling biography can be more effective than a list of policy proposals. Wealth and privilege are not automatic disqualifiers if a candidate can craft a narrative that says to voters: I've been tested. I understand the struggles you face because I've been there.

Bush 41 postponed college after Pearl Harbor and enlisted as a naval aviator. Bush 43 overcame a severe drinking problem. Obama talks frequently about his parents: an absent father and a single mother relying on food stamps to feed her children.

Hillary Clinton has recently started recalling her grandfather "going to work in the same Scranton lace mill every day for 50 years." And her mother, abandoned by her parents, "by 14 she was out on her own, working as a housemaid."

What is Jeb's comparable story of overcoming adversity? That's not yet clear.

Bush's other problem is political, not personal: the rightward shift of the Republican Party.

His father could talk about a "kinder, gentler nation," and his brother about being a "compassionate conservative." Both formulations served to unify the GOP's rightist and centrist wings and frame a candidacy that could win a general election.

But Jeb's "compassionate" views on immigration, for example -- which could help him defeat a Democratic rival -- are denounced by the party's increasingly hardline base, rather than applauded.

When Bushes 41 and 43 ran for president, "there was no tea party," notes former Texas congressman Henry Bonilla in the New York Times. "Now you've got a lot of splits within the family and a huge list of candidates scratching and clawing for support. It's a completely different world."

Yes it is. But if Jeb Bush wins the nomination, he knows he will have to do it the old-fashioned way.

He will have to earn it.

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