Can George W. Bush save Jeb's campaign?

Since launching his campaign, Jeb Bush has tended to distance himself from his presidential brother. But that may soon change.

Mari Darr~Welch/AP/File
Then-president George W. Bush jokes with his brother, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in Pensacola, Fla., in 2006.

For a candidate with such a famous name, Jeb Bush has gone to great lengths to distance himself from his family.

Not by mistake, his campaign slogan is simply Jeb!, his campaign narrative emphasizes that he is his own man, he reportedly becomes testy when asked how he differs from his brother, and that famous brother – George W. Bush – has appeared on the campaign trail publicly only once.

And for good reason. At a time when anti-establishment headwinds in the Republican party have lifted the likes of political outsiders like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and to some extent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, reminding voters of his dynastic family, it has been thought, would be disastrous for Mr. Bush.

But Bush's campaign has been something of a disaster, anyway, with a series of underwhelming debate performances, sagging poll numbers, and fundraising stumbles that have led to morbid, metaphor-laden murmurings about his campaign being "on a death spiral," "in life support," or worse, "in hospice," where it will undergo "a slow death."

Which is why, at its darkest hour, the Bush campaign is wondering if the family name it thought would ruin its candidate's campaign may actually save it.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Bush hinted that brother George W. Bush may join him on the trail to save his struggling campaign.

“It is something to consider because he is very popular. And I also know I need to go earn this," Bush said. “My brother has been a strong supporter and I love him dearly. He’ll continue to play a constructive role.”

By and large, Jeb's comments mark a departure from the Bush campaign's strategy so far, which has relied on the family's fundraising network to raise large sums of campaign funds, while publicly and loudly distancing itself from the Bush name. Still, it's clear the 2016 candidate has wrestled with the issue. He's famously called his brother out for not reining in congressional spending – but, after Mr. Trump ridiculed the president in a recent debate, he also defended his brother's record on terrorism in what has been called one of his strongest moments.

There's reason to take a gamble with George W. Bush. It may shore up Jeb's standing with conservatives, as well as remind conservative voters of a largely well-liked and respected political family.

While George W. Bush's approval rating was a dismal 22 percent when he left office, he has since gained in popularity. A New York Times/CBS News survey from this spring found that 71 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of George W. Bush, compared with only 10 percent who said they did not.

Still, the approach has its risks. Many in the GOP don't want their next president to be a third Bush. And campaigning with Bush 43 would offer Democrats plenty of fodder for anti-Jeb attack ads.

"Jeb is looking to strike a very careful balance, keeping the supporters of both his father's and his brother’s campaigns embraced while not alienating folks that aren't very enthusiastic about a third Bush run," Republican strategist Katie Packer, a senior aide to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, told Reuters.

But, as Slate's Josh Voorhees pointed out, at this point, Jeb has little to lose.

"[T]he Hail Mary might pose less of a risk to Jeb than sticking with a game plan that has taken him from the presumed GOP favorite to a political punching bag in a matter of months. What would he have to lose? Bush can’t lose the general election if he doesn’t win the primary first."

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