By Steve Holland
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Jeb Bush's workmanlike performance at the first top-tier Republican presidential debate was free of mistakes and positive, but his conflict-averse strategy meant that he let pass the opportunity to tangle with his opponents.
And for some Republican activists, that pointed to an element missing from his 2016 presidential campaign: the need to show more passion in order to convince Republican primary voters that he is enough of a fighter for their causes.
Thursday night's debate in Cleveland was filled with theatrics, most of them revolving around Donald Trump. The freewheeling attack dog suddenly singled out Bush on stage, saying his brother, George W. Bush, had bungled the last few months of his presidency in 2008 and left the path open for Democrat Barack Obama to win election.
"You can't be happy about that," Trump told Bush.
Bush refused to take the bait, batting away Trump's blast by criticizing the billionaire' s language as divisive and sticking with his policy of not re-litigating his brother's presidency.
"We’re going to win when we unite people with an optimistic message," he said.
It was vintage Bush, the type of comment he has made on the campaign trail all year in his drive to run a "joyful" campaign. Will it be enough?
Some of the talk on the sidelines of a Republican National Committee meeting in Cleveland over the last few days was that the studious former Florida governor should show more fire in the belly.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said Bush has been a victim of circumstance given Trump's recent surge up the polls.
“Everything has been Trump, Trump, Trump. Bush was just beginning to hit his stride when Trump exploded. The key for Bush is in a word: passion. Republican primary voters want a fighter. Bush has to show them that he has that passion in him," Luntz said.
Mark Meuser, a Republican activist from Walnut Creek, California, said Bush has a similar problem to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney in that "he's not going to excite the base."
Bush's senior advisers said he accomplished his goal in Cleveland: to emphasize his record as a conservative tax-cutting Florida governor. Since he has been out of office for eight years, they reason, voters do not realize the full extent of his record.
"We did what we wanted to do: Talk about the Florida record," said campaign manager Danny Diaz.
Bush has been running second behind Trump in opinion polls, but he and Trump are drawing support from different parts of the Republican Party. Bush, a prolific fundraiser who has outpaced the field in terms of dollars raised, gets most of his support from establishment Republicans. Trump is backed by the anti-Washington crowd.
Bush came to Cleveland needing some wind in his sails after having to correct a statement he made in Nashville, Tennessee, at a Baptist conference earlier in the week when he said, "I'm not sure we need half a billion dollars for women's health issues."
He quickly made clear he was referring to a need to defund Planned Parenthood, but his original comment was quickly pounced on by Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose focus on Bush suggests she sees him as the real threat in the Republican field.
Bush rival Carly Fiorina, a standout in an earlier debate on Thursday by lower-polling Republican candidates, told reporters Bush had committed a "foolish" unforced error.
"I think it's going to become an ad in a Democrat campaign," Fiorina said. "Hillary Clinton jumped all over it for a reason, because she saw an opportunity."
(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)