By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former President George W. Bush believes his brother Jeb should stop defending the White House decisions the elder Bush made, and he is seeking to reassure jittery supporters about the health of Jeb's campaign, according to sources.
Some of Jeb Bush's most difficult moments on the campaign trail have come when he has gotten caught up in a debate about George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
More recently, Jeb Bush responded aggressively when Republican rival Donald Trump charged that the former president did not keep the United States safe because the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place on his watch.
Jeb Bush's lackluster performance at Wednesday's debate in Boulder, Colorado, further fueled a narrative of a candidate who is struggling to find his footing and who has been forced to cut payroll and staff in response to declining campaign donations.
At a Washington hotel on Thursday, George W. Bush addressed hundreds of people who had worked in his administration. Attendees at the event said the 69-year-old former president was funny and self-deprecating and appeared to be at peace with himself and his record.
A participant said Jeb Bush's struggling campaign came up only briefly in the question-and-answer period. The elder Bush said it is still early in the race to choose a Republican nominee for the November 2016 presidential election and that his brother remains a strong candidate.
George W. Bush volunteered that Jeb may feel the need to defend him for familial reasons.
"But he should not feel the need to do it," the participant said Bush told the group. "The decisions that he made back then were unique to that time and space and they don't need to be defended by him or others today."
George W. Bush later headlined a fundraising event in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood that a donor said raised at least $350,000 for his brother's campaign.
Two attendees at this event, described as upbeat and positive, reported that George W. Bush said Jeb can recover from his debate performance last week.
"He said that he believes in his brother, that he has a strong record, that he has it in his heart and his gut to do it," said one major donor who attended.
Bush noted his own ability to come back after being defeated by John McCain in the New Hampshire primary in 2000.
"He said campaigns are supposed to have ups and downs," said another attendee. "If you can't handle the ups and downs of the campaign, you can't handle the ups and downs of the presidency."
With another debate coming up in Milwaukee on Nov. 10, Jeb Bush, who served two terms as Florida's governor, is seeking to reassure his supporters that he can perform better.
"We've got eight more debates," he told MSNBC on Thursday. "I'm going to have to do what other candidates do, which is: Rudely interrupt, not answer the questions that are asked, and hopefully the debate moderators will actually ask more substantive questions as well."
The Bush campaign hopes to rebound next week with events that will play to Bush's strengths. His "Jeb can fix it" tour will coincide with the release of an e-book about his time in office. A big speech is planned on Monday in Tampa, Florida.
Eric Ferhnstrom, who was a senior adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Jeb Bush needs to project strength at the next debate.
"The problem for Jeb now is he is in a bit of a doom loop where bad news feeds on itself," Ferhnstrom said. "It’s a long road to the White House and at some point everyone gets put against the ropes. The question is how quickly can you get off the ropes and back into the fight."
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler)