Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, ridiculed by Donald Trump as a "low-energy" candidate, is finally taking up the challenge in an effort to revive his lagging presidential campaign. He seems to have no choice now, and in the process he may be offering himself as a sacrificial lamb for the good of the Republican Party.
The Grand Old Party certainly needs somebody to wrestle with this year's 800-pound gorilla. But it is conspicuously out of character for the calm and proper Mr. Bush, generally regarded in the GOP establishment as the "smart" member of his family, to get down in the mud with the notorious bully-boy from the rough-and-tumble financial world.
Others in the Republican presidential field continue to shy from confronting Mr. Trump, either agreeing with him that the country is fed up with politics as usual and its practitioners, or ignoring his crudities. Mr. Bush meanwhile is finally engaging Mr. Trump in an act of political self-preservation.
He is trumpeting the obvious fact that Mr. Trump is no more a Republican than self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders is. He cites the real estate tycoon's own past statements of support for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump's response, that as a longtime Manhattanite he had to sound like a Democrat, is a laughable dodge.
His crass concession that he has used his great wealth by buy politicians, including the Clintons — Hillary attended his last wedding, he says, to keep Trump money flowing to the Clinton Foundation — is a naked confirmation of his contempt for the electoral process.
Although Mr. Trump continues to ride high in the public opinion polls by giving voice to the widespread angst toward that process, the gap between the folks aroused by what he's saying and those who say they want him to become president remains considerable. A recent Huffington Post aggregation of polls shows Mr. Trump with an unfavorability rating of 54.9 percent.
Until Mr. Bush started speaking up, the loudest and toughest words among the presidential hopefuls were coming from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, running in the single digits in the polls. He is the closest Senate friend of John McCain, the old Vietnam POW dismissed as a war hero by Mr. Trump.
But with the second televised Republican debate coming up on Sept. 16 by CNN at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, there are signs the GOP elephant is at last arousing itself against this blowhard usurper.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, famed for his sharp tongue and in-your-face demeanor, joked on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" the other night that he might "go nuclear" in that next debate in California. He too seems stymied by the Trump phenomenon. In his view, he was ignored in the first debate, so it figures he'll also go after the blunt front-runner the next time.
Also, CNN has said that in selecting the candidates for the next debate it would include polls that reflect Carly Fiorina's strong showing in the Fox News undercard debate last month. She showed no hesitation then in challenging Mr. Trump's Republican credentials. She asked in light of his earlier support of abortion rights, "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants and federal health care, which principles would guide him as president?
She needled Mr. Trump by saying: "I never got a phone call from Bill Clinton. ... Maybe it's because I hadn't given money to his foundation or donated to his wife's Senate campaign." She and asked the other Republicans on the stage whether they had gotten such a call.
So Mr. Bush may have company in the next debate in bearding the lion. If so, the political question will be: Does he get credit from voters and the news media for having the guts to lead the charge against Mr. Trump? Or will he bear the brunt of the anti-establishment wrath in the party in taking on its loudest champion?
More temperate contenders such as Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida could well be the beneficiaries of the attempted takedown of Donald Trump by Mr. Bush and others, if it works. Common sense dictates that sooner or later it will.
Then the next question will be: After the carnage created to the party itself, will the 2016 Republican nomination be worth the taking?
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 email@example.com.