NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Carolina saved George W. Bush in 2000. Now the former president is looking to save his brother Jeb 16 years later.
"There's no doubt in my mind Jeb Bush has the experience and the character to be a great president," the former president told a crowd of supporters during a rare political appearance Monday, further joking that South Carolina should support the candidate with "the most opinionated mother" in Saturday's primary.
Jeb Bush told the crowd that half-filled the convention center space that he was "so honored that my brother is here" and said he would emulate his "steady hand to keep us safe" when it came to the nation's economic and national security challenges.
The former Florida governor also defended his older brother against attacks by Republican front-runner Donald Trump, saying it was "weird" that the New York businessman once suggested impeachment of President Bush over the Iraq war.
In his speech, George W. Bush did not mention other Republican candidates — or President Obama for that matter — but did appear to allude to Trump by saying that "these are tough times and I know that Americans are angry, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and our frustrations." The former president also said that strength is not "bluster" or having the loudest voice in the room, but rather the "integrity and character" of people like Jeb Bush.
While extolling his brother's experience as governor and businessman, the former president also told stories about his past political life. He recited "fond memories" of South Carolina that include visits to military bases, the "okra strut" in Irmo and breakfast at Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenville — the latter an event at which a PETA protester poured manure into the parking lot.
"It was kind of a sign of things to come," the elder Bush said.
The ex-president repeated old jokes – "I've been mis-underestimated most of my life" — and trotted out new ones about his pastimes as writer and painter. Of the latter pursuit, Bush said he knows that "the signature is worth more than the painting."
Jeb Bush, who enlisted mother Barbara to campaign for him in New Hampshire, also found himself defending his brother's legacy in the face of continued attacks by Trump.
As Trump continued to assail the former president over 9/11 and Iraq, Jeb Bush repeated his line from last weekend's debate that "while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show," his brother was "building a security apparatus to keep us safe" after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Trump, who held a news conference near North Charleston just hours before the Bush event, questioned whether George W. Bush kept the nation safe, echoing his debate claims that the 9/11 attacks happened and "the World Trade Center came down during his reign." Trump also criticized Bush's decision to launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying it destabilized the Middle East.
George W. Bush may never have been president if not for South Carolina, or at least its Republican primary.
On Feb. 19, 2000, just 18 days after his blowout loss to John McCain in the New Hampshire primary — the then-Texas governor defeated McCain in the Palmetto State. The win stabilized Bush's campaign and sent him on to the Republican nomination.
Hogan Gidley, a Republican political adviser based in South Carolina, said state party members feel like George W. Bush is one of them, nearly two decades after the primary that bound them together. "We rescued his campaign back in 2000," Gidley said. "We have ownership — he's our guy."
Whether that translates into actual votes for Jeb Bush remains to be seen, he said.
George W.'s win here still resonates as the symbol of South Carolina-style rough-and-tumble politics. McCain supporters still protest what they call dirty tactics, including false and anonymous e-mail and telephone rumors that were circulated about the Arizona senator and his family before the primary.
This year's campaign isn't for the faint of heart either, especially after a debate that some likened to demolition derby, including Trump's attacks on Jeb Bush and his family. Trump, who also criticized Barbara Bush for her attacks last week in New Hampshire, took to Twitter to bash the upcoming Bush event in North Charleston.
On Monday he tweeted that the legacy of the last Bush presidency may become "fair game" for the 2016 campaign.
During his speech in North Charleston, George W. Bush lamented the "petty name calling" of the current campaign. The former president also said that, if people want to call him part of the so-called establishment, "I proudly carry that label."
This is only the latest unusual intersection in the political careers of George W. and Jeb Bush.
During the presidency of their father, George H.W. Bush, many observers saw Jeb as the potential successor.
Then came 1994. Jeb Bush lost his election for governor of Florida, while George W., a co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, captured the governor's mansion in Texas. Their roles had reversed.
George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 after a fierce, still-disputed recount in Florida — the state where Jeb had finally been elected governor in 1998.
Now George W. Bush returns to South Carolina as Jeb Bush faces what looks like an uphill battle, both in South Carolina and in the overall race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
The Real Clear Politics polling averages puts Bush nearly 30 points behind Trump both nationally and in South Carolina, and also trailing Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich.
Tanya Robinson, 60, an undecided Republican who traveled to North Charleston from nearby Summerville, said the ex-president's appearance should help Bush, but "I don't know if it will win the state."
Robinson, the president of the South Carolina PTA, also said there's a lot of campaigning left before Saturday's primary. "A lot of South Carolinians are not sure yet," she said.