Jeb Bush and Donald Trump had New Hampshire town halls at the same time yesterday. The media scored the town hall "duel" for Trump. I'm not so sure.
But Trump said nothing to expand his base of rabid supporters. Whereas Bush began the effort to cut Trump down to size.
Asked about Trump by a voter, Bush was prepared and delivered a thorough critique of Trump's ideology:
We're a conservative party ... the Republican Party. I think what people are going to eventually vote for is a proven conservative leader that's done it. Not talked about it. That's actually done it.
And I have a proven conservative record. Consistent, proven, conservative record when no one was watching. Long time proven conservative record.
Mr. Trump doesn’t have a proven conservative record. He was a Democrat longer in the last decade than he was a Republican. He’s given more money to Democrats than he’s given to Republicans.
It wasn’t that long ago he was for and continues to–hasn’t denied I don’t think — the fact he is for a tax on assets. Now this is a really exotic form of taxation. Not tax on income, a tax on assets for people that have more than 10 million dollars of assets, 14 percent. There is no country in the world that has proposed this. It would be very un-American to do this. It's not a conservative value in my mind.
He was for a single-payer system for healthcare until very recently. Not a very conservative point of view...
...When people look at his record it is not a conservative record. Even on immigration. The language is pretty vitriolic, for sure. But hundreds of billions of dollars of cost to implement his plans is not a conservative plan.
After the town hall, Jeb shared the video on Twitter with an extra jab: "Calling it like I see it. @realDonaldTrump is a tax-hiking democrat."
Contrary to the assumption of many, Republican primary voters are accustomed to nominating Establishment candidates who do not have perfect scores on the conservative purity test. Typically, conservative die-hards splinter among several candidates, a well-funded Establishment candidate wins early contests with pluralities, electability concerns kick in and the bandwagon effect materialized.
At this early moment in the race, splintering is widespread. Neither the conventional candidates nor the firebrands have fully locked up their bases.
Trump is riding the biggest wave. But his poll average of 22 percent only looks good in comparison to the others; it's not that dominating a level for a supposed frontrunner. Herman Cain hit 30 percent in October 2011. He lost half of his support by November.
Republicans have hesitated to attack Trump out of fear of alienating his supporters and fear of being hit twice as hard by Trump. And in a multi-candidate race, better to let someone else do your dirty work the mud doesn't get on you.
But if you've watched a movie about high school, everyone claps at the end when the bully gets taken down. Trump is the bully sullying the entire Republican Party that everyone is afraid to confront.
Bush, who is held back because conservative are skeptical about his pro-immigration and pro-Common Core positions, is well positioned to be the bully-fighter because the reality is the exact opposite of the perception: Bush really does have a conservative record and Trump is an opportunistic ideological chameleon.
All Bush needs to do is tell the truth.
The downside risk for Bush is that he hurts his ability to position himself for the general election. He needs to show that he would not be a third Bush term. Communicating the country that you are more conservative than Trump, in part by defending low taxation for the wealthiest, complicates that task.
But that is a problem for another day. Trump is not only the obstacle in Jeb's way. His anti-immigrant bigotry is a cancer on the Republican Party. Jeb seems to grasp more than most that the cancer needs to be removed if the Republican Party is ever to be taken seriously as a governing party.