DERRY, N.H. (AP) — Jeb Bush was once believed to be a virtual shoo-in for the Republican nomination in a crowded field of political newcomers and outsiders. But going into the second presidential contest in New Hampshire next week, he's doing anything he can to keep his flagging campaign on the rails.
He's begging some for votes and bear-hugging others who say they'll consider it. This week, he whispered "please clap" after delivering a commanding speech about leadership — a phrase that has since gone viral on social media.
In New Hampshire, he's been joined by his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, who is working to convince voters that her son is "decent and honest."
But Bush is ultimately banking on his experience as a businessman and former Florida governor to convince voters that he's best suited for the Oval Office, arguing that the three top finishers in the Iowa caucuses —Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio — aren't up to the job.
The other GOP contenders have "no proven record of experience," Bush told a crowd of committed and curious voters crammed into a school cafeteria in Derry, N.H. "We need someone whose ambition is to serve others — not to serve their own ambitions."
But many observers say Bush has an extremely tough battle ahead of him. It's "the end of the road for the Bush dynasty" if he can't pull out a second place finish in New Hampshire's Feb. 9 primary, said Boston University political scientist Tom Whalen.
Bush's campaign began 2016 with less than $7.6 million in the bank, less than what Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had available. His well-financed super PAC, meanwhile, had plenty of cash left to burn. Right to Rise, which attracted million-dollar checks from dozens of donors, started the year with roughly half of the $118 million it amassed in 2015.
Political analysts say the former Florida governor desperately needs a strong showing.
"It's like the song 'New York, New York.' If he can make it here, he can make it anywhere," said University of New Hampshire political scientist and UNH survey director Andy Smith. "I don't see a path ahead for him without doing well here."
Early preference polls do not bode well. Voters in New Hampshire are notoriously late deciders, but even some of those gathered at Bush events — he's done more than 90 town halls — say they've got their sights set on others.
Steve Giguere from Pittsfieldsaid he is voting for Kasich because he believes he can achieve compromise in Washington. His wife, Patty Giguere, is torn between Democrat Bernie Sanders and Rubio.
"He is a nice man, good family," she said, but, "I feel like (Rubio) could save the Republican party."
As he struggles to stand out, Bush finds himself dealing with more questions about his prospects than his policy positions.
On Wednesday, CNN's Jake Tapper opened an interview by asking whether Bush's campaign logo— Jeb!— may need to be modified to end with a question mark. He likened Bush's perseverance to a "Muhammad Ali-like vow to surprise the world in New Hampshire."
"I never thought I was Muhammad Ali, but I'll take it," Bush joked.
At his town hall events, Bush carefully answers every question, often in detail, describing himself a proud "policy wonk." He also makes it a point, without being asked, to talk about his famous political family, embracing the legacy of his father, George H.W. Bush, and older brother, George W. Bush.
"I'm proud of my dad. I'm proud of my brother. I'm proud of being a Bush," he told a large crowd Thursday night in Derry.
At least publicly, Bush remains positive about his hopes in New Hampshire and beyond.
"I know you guys want to go back to doing whatever you were doing before and that campaigns need to be over just like this— Poof," he told reporters Tuesday night in Hanover.
"My intention is to survive all the craziness of this," he said. "We are within striking distance. This is a place ripe for redefining the race."