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Opinion

Jeb Bush: Sacrificial lamb?

If the war of words between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush were a championship boxing match, the referee would have stopped it by now. Either he would have disqualified the Manhattan mauler for low blows or simply ended the one-sidedness of the fight.

Mr. Trump's no-holds-barred style has made the clash more of a wrestling match of eye-gouging and punching in the clinches by a foul-mouthed bully-boy against a benign upper-crust Gentleman Jeb. Mr. Bush, for all his early intentions to abide by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, just doesn't seem to have the stomach for hitting below it.

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The son of a former president and brother of another one has taken on the task of defending the honor not only of his family name but also of his Republican Party. But by the nature of Jeb's personality and breeding he has proved to be a mismatch against the master of the rough-and-tumble world of the cutthroat business deal.

Mr. Bush has been obliged to engage in the brawl to try to salvage his own stalled presidential nomination campaign. Nonetheless, he is taking some of Trump's nastiest verbal punches for the party as well. Its reputation and long record as a moderate-to-conservative political institution is being trashed by the single-minded self-promoter who has seized on the public mood of anger and discontent toward politics in general.

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Jeb entered the race early, well before the Donald Trump intrusion into Republican presidential politics. The former two-term Florida governor was widely regarded then as the GOP frontrunner by virtue of his family history and its fund-raising prowess, as well as his experience running the Sunshine State. He seemed determined to drive off all the competition with that money machine, which in 2000 had cleared the Republican field for his brother George, then the governor of Texas.

But Jeb stumbled from the start, saying he would have invaded Iraq as George W. had done.

Then he recanted, insisting he had misunderstood the question and would not have invaded had he known Iraq did not have the weapons of mass destruction W. had claimed existed.

When Mr. Trump and another non-politician, Ben Carson, began to tap into the anti-government sentiment in the land, Jeb soon found that his family tie was becoming as much a detriment as a benefit. He struggled for months to gain traction in the polls as voters brushed off his conspicuously easy-going, noncombative manner.

The tough and cunning Mr. Trump alertly seized on the resultant environment. He belittled Jeb as "a low-energy person" not up to the take-no-prisoners political war being waged by him in the most personal terms. When Jeb finally decided he had to confront Mr. Trump directly, he seemed at first to do so reluctantly, often wearing a facial expression of discomfort, even pain.

Whether taking Mr. Trump on out of personal political necessity or for the good of the party and the political process, Mr. Bush got little credit or support from most of the other GOP contenders. They were willing to let him be the sacrificial lamb, drawing most of Mr. Trump's insults and venom.

Mr. Trump, being who and how he is, soon decided to be an equal-opportunity character assailant. He also turned his fire on Dr. Carson, former business executive Carly Fiorina, even Sen. Ted Cruz, calling him "a little bit of a maniac," presumably because the go-it-alone Texan has worked overtime making Republican enemies in theSenate.

But Mr. Cruz appears undeterred in continuing to praise Mr. Trump, obviously hoping the GOP frontrunner eventually will fade, enabling him to inherit Mr. Trump's support as a more acceptable alternative on the party's right wing.

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The prayer in Jeb Bush's campaign now is that its well-heeled treasury will get him through the current stall in the polls, until the old party establishment somehow shows appreciation to Jeb for going after the loud-mouthed bully in its midst. Instead, though, Jeb may find himself unrewarded by these moderate Republicans for trying in his fashion to slay the dragon Mr. Trump before he leads the party to another in loss of the presidency next year.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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