Once upon a time, he was the party favorite. An anticipated shoo-in for the Republican presidential nomination. But four debates in, Jeb Bush is trailing — and not in second or third place, but in fifth — behind once-presumed long shots like Donald Trump (who was polling at record levels as of Monday) and Ben Carson, both of whom have never held office and have zero political experience. How has the former Florida governor with the widely recognized dynasty name fallen so far behind? And more importantly, how can he pull out of his slump? The next Republican debate will make or break Jeb Bush, so he's going to have to out-Trump Trump while reminding Republicans of why he was a frontrunner not so long ago.
Since the last debate, the world has been rocked by several high-profile mass killings, including the ones in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino. All of them will likely play a major role in the final Republican debate of the year. One topic that the moderators will inevitably address will be Trump's proposed ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., a highly contentious plan that has united the Republican party against him. If Bush wants to finally break his pattern of lackluster debate performances, he'll have to capitalize on this, and emphasize why Trump's extremist policies are not what the Republican party — or America, for that matter — is about.
But more important than what Bush says will be how he says it. He'll have to beat Trump at his own game by going on the offensive and going hard. That "low energy" label that Trump pegged to him early in the election cycle has stuck to him like a schoolyard nickname. But therein lies Trump's secret: He panders to people who are sick of "political correctness" and politeness in general. As twisted as it is, there are voters who view his bullying ways as strength. If Bush wants to shake Trump's label, he's going to have to drop the decorum and get on his level — to a degree. But in adopting a strategy of fighting fire with fire, Bush won't have to compromise his own integrity, as long as he's smart about it.
Armed with the overwhelming consensus that Trump is a divisive bigot who does not represent true conservative values, Bush could easily give Trump his own label: "low morality." Not only is it entirely accurate, but it makes "low energy" seem inconsequential in comparison. And Bush shouldn't stop there. He, along with the other candidates and the moderators, need to urge Trump to address how his actions are playing right into ISIS's hands. How can he not see that setting the world against Muslims is exactly what terrorists want? When pressing this issue, Bush should ask in so many words, "Are you being reckless, or are you just stupid?"
Of course, Trump isn't the only hurdle Bush will have to surmount. But given the timing, and the amount of ammunition at the ready, targeting the real estate mogul might be his easiest strategy for the next debate. It may be low-hanging fruit, but Bush is sort of in a "beggars can't be choosers" situation.
Hurting Trump's image aside, Bush will also have to reiterate his own image and message. Before the 2016 election started unfolding, Bush was poised to win the nomination, since he was well-respected and trusted by the Republican party. His eight-year run as governor of Florida (a swing state) is considered successful overall. According to a June 2013 poll, a whopping 87 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of him, as did 54 percent of all voters. If he can somehow remind voters of this favorable Bush, and fortify it with a new, stronger, gutsier version of himself, then the one-time favorite might just reclaim his frontrunner position. Or at least step out of the back.