By James Oliphant and Emily Flitter
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - At almost every turn lately, Donald Trump has tried to get under Jeb Bush’s skin.
In interviews and on social media, Trump relentlessly needles and mocks Bush, almost to the exclusion of his many other rivals in the Republican presidential field.
Ronald Reagan used to refer to what he called the 11th Commandment - Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican. But as he has done often during this campaign season, Trump is playing by his own set of rules.
Trump's incivility is unusually raw and personal for any modern presidential campaign, particularly at this early stage, when most of the contenders are busy blasting Democrats, not each other. And unlike candidates in the past, Trump doesn't use proxies or surrogates. It comes straight from him.
But there's a method to Trump's Bush-bashing, those close to Trump tell Reuters. The jabs at Bush elevate Trump in the eyes of his supporters, who view Bush as the product of an establishment it disdains. And they work to reinforce the idea that Bush, who with his massive financial war chest could yet prove to be Trump's biggest rival, is struggling with voters.
“Trump looks to be playing the schoolyard bully in order to show that Jeb Bush is too weak with his counter-attacks to really be a threat,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist.
There's little political downside to Trump's brickbats. His campaign isn't worried that alienating Bush supporters could cost him votes somewhere down the line. "Any vote Trump knocks off of Bush isn’t going to go Trump," said Roger Stone, a former top adviser to the real estate mogul's campaign.
Recent polling from Reuters/IPSOS show that Trump's needling could be having an effect. Support for Bush - who many saw as an early favorite for the Republican nomination - has bottomed out among Republican voters over the past week. At just 8 percent, he now trails Trump by more than 20 percentage points.
TAUNTING VIA TWEETS
Over the past week, Trump stepped up his taunts of Bush on social media and in interviews.
“The last thing we need is another Bush in the White House,” Trump recently tweeted.
In another tweet, Trump said, “Jeb Bush never uses his last name on advertising, signage, materials etc. Is he ashamed of the name BUSH? A pretty sad situation.”
On Instagram, Trump even went as far as posting a video of Barbara Bush, Bush's mother and the former first lady, telling an interviewer last year that she didn't think Jeb Bush should run for president.
Trump was back at it at a campaign rally in Greenville, South Carolina, on Thursday. "I used to think he was a guy that you had to beat," Trump said of Bush. "But he's going down fast."
Trump has taken to calling Bush “a low-energy person” in interviews. His campaign delighted last week when cable news outlets contrasted Trump’s raucous event in New Hampshire with a more somnolent affair Bush was holding in the same state - which will hold one of the nation's first nominating contests in February, ahead of the November 2016 presidential election.
Bush's campaign dismissed Trump's attacks.
“I think Trump is trying to overcompensate for the fact that Jeb was a successful pro-life, tax-cutting, small-government conservative governor, while he was a liberal New York socialite advocating for partial birth abortion, the biggest tax increase in American history and socialized health care,” said Tim Miller, a spokesman for the Bush campaign.
Even so, Bush seems to be taking notice of Trump's effrontery. His trip to the U.S. southwest border this week was viewed as a response to Trump’s divisive immigration policy. Bush argued that mass deportations of illegal immigrants, something that Trump has called for, is not the answer.
But Bush found himself on the defensive when he tried to clarify his use of the term “anchor babies” - typically used to describe U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. He ended up saying that he was largely referring to Asian women who come to the United States in organized efforts to give birth in order to secure U.S. citizenship for their children.
Trump reveled in Bush’s struggles. “Asians are very offended that Jeb said anchor babies applies to them as a way to be more politically correct to Hispanics,” Trump tweeted. “A mess!”
On Wednesday, Bush fired back at Trump while at a rally in Pensacola, Florida. “Do we have to talk about this guy?” Bush said, rolling his eyes and smirking.
Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who is backing Bush, said he was glad that Bush hasn’t been drawn into a war of insults with Trump. “I like what Bush did on the border,” Weber said. “He didn’t call him names, but he dissected his immigration policy pretty well. That’s got to be the approach.”
Trump tries to connect Bush to his family history as often as he can, in an effort to appeal to voters wary of dynastic politics. In interviews, he's recently brought up both George H.W. Bush's "no new taxes" pledge and the Iraq War launched under George W. Bush. “He sees Bush as his main rival, even if the polls may not reflect that right now,” said Bruce Buchanan, an expert on presidential politics at the University of Texas.
While Bush is at a low ebb, Buchanan said, Trump is seeing if “he can’t take some wind out of his sails.”
Bush supporters see it that way, too. “It’s pretty clear that the race is becoming Bush versus Trump,” said Tre' Evers, a Bush fundraiser in Orlando. “The people that I deal with really do not view Donald Trump - nobody that I’ve talked to thinks he will get the nomination or be elected president,” Evers added.
The dismissive attitude toward Trump by some who insist he will never be the Republican nominee is what inflames Trump’s supporters, who view Bush as the epitome of the big-money Republican establishment. Earlier this month in Iowa, Trump called Bush “a puppet to his donors.”
But even with Bush in a weakened state, Trump knows his campaign remains potent. Bush has raised more money - a record-setting $120 million - than any candidate in the field, Republican or Democrat. Trump's advisers recall Mitt Romney's super PAC bombarding Romney's primary opponents with ads during the 2012 election.
"When I look at Jeb raising hundreds of millions of dollars, he'll do attack ads on me," Trump said Thursday in South Carolina.
There's another, more basic, reason for Trump's continued antagonism toward Bush, said Stone, the former Trump adviser.
"I think Donald perceives an attitude that Jeb just believes he should be anointed. That it's his by birthright," Stone said. "I don't think he likes Jeb."
(Reporting by James Oliphant and Emily Flitter; Additional reporting by Grant Smith in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler)