But at CNN's Republican debate Tuesday, the former Florida governor tore into the GOP front-runner, solidifying himself as the establishment's primary attack dog against Trump.
While Bush has been willing to bash Trump for months -- firing off one of his biggest shots last week when he called his rival "unhinged" for proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country -- Bush's Tuesday debate performance showcased a new turbocharged offensive against the billionaire businessman.
Bush now rests in the mid-to low single digits in national polls, while Trump has expanded his lead, coming in at 38% in an ABC News/Washington Post survey earlier this week. All other candidates came in at 15% or below. Bush had 5%.
While some of Bush's donors have been pressing for an aggressive take-down of Trump -- who also won praise for his debate performance -- it's unclear whether that strategy will pay dividends for Bush.
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said Bush's pushback was strong, but appeared to be a last-resort tactic.
"He sees the writing on the wall, so now he's throwing caution to the wind even with respect to Trump mania and is trying to pull every rabbit out of the hat," he said. "The question is will it resonate with GOP primary voters? One thing is for sure: if this were a general election, Jeb would be in far greater shape."
Read more from Ashley Killough at CNN
Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were the big winners of the latest Republican presidential debate — so say political thinkers I interviewed following the battle.
While Donald Trump’s statement that he would support the eventual GOP nominee was certainly newsworthy, it was the clash of sons of Cuban immigrants and the scenario of a nomination fight coming down to Rubio and Cruz that captivated almost everyone.
“A new defining dynamic in Rubio-Cruz” is what emerged from the CNN-sponsored forum in Las Vegas, according to veteran GOP consultant Ford O’Connell. “Daily Caller” blogger Matt Lewis, author of “Too Dumb to Fail,” concluded that “the real action was between Rubio and Cruz.” (Neither Lewis nor O’Connell, nor anyone else on our panel, has a favorite in the presidential contest.)
Consultant O’Connell told me there was “no clear winner, yet three candidates excelled in the debate: Cruz, Rubio, and Trump. That said, we have a new defining dynamic in Rubio-Cruz.
"They canceled each other out on the stage — Rubio bested Cruz on foreign policy and national security, but Cruz outflanked Rubio on immigration. Trump-mania will keep rolling along because a significant portion of the Republican electorate is fed up with ‘politics as usual.’”
In forecasting a protracted clash between first-term Sens. Rubio and Cruz, O’Connell noted that Rubio has mastered presentation and substance, and Cruz, already strong on substance, has perfected the art of using conservative talk-radio buzzwords. Both are effective, depending on your base of support.
Read more from John Gizzi at Newsmax.com
While many viewers were fixed on the ongoing political spectacle that is Donald Trump during Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio only had eyes for each other.
The two first-term senators - one from Texas and the other from Florida, both the 44-year-old sons of Cuban fathers and both rising conservative stars in the party - made it evidently clear that they see the other as the primary obstacle to securing the nomination if Trump, the current front-runner, falters.
As such, they engaged in an arm-wrestling contest for most of the evening, sparring on Middle Eastern policy, national security and immigration.
“The Cruz-Rubio battle is now a defining dynamic in this race,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
Both largely left Trump alone - and in fact, when Cruz was invited by debate moderators to attack the real estate mogul, he demurred.
But Cruz had no such restraint when it came to Rubio. Among other criticisms, he accused him of being soft on immigration policy because he helped craft a comprehensive reform measure in the Senate.
A win by Cruz in Iowa could severely damage Trump’s bid, as the real estate mogul’s political message is largely grounded in his current dominance of opinion polls. It could also hand Cruz the kind of momentum that could derail Rubio’s bid to be the candidate around whom anti-Trump voters rally.
“They’re (both) trying to reach as wide a swath of non-Trump voters as possible,” O’Connell said.
Read more from James Oliphant and Emily Stephenson at Reuters
Donald Trump is a distant second in campaign for the first 2016 presidential nominating contest in Iowa. But if the views of some of the nation's most hard-core Republicans are any indication, the billionaire has enough support to remain a factor in the race for quite some time.
Among those planning to attend the state's Feb. 1 Republican caucuses, 50 percent told the latest Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll that Trump says "things that need to be said" and they hope hope he continues to do so.
The poll bolsters concerns on the part of Republican Party leaders who are gradually coming to terms with the fact that Trump has a large enough and committed enough base of supporters to continue to be a major factor in the race, even if he fails to score wins in Iowa and other early contests.
"His supporters are going to stay with him, come hell or high water," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, who served on Senator John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. "No one knows how to stop it."
Read more from John McCormick at BloombergPolitics
By now, it’s pretty well established that Ted Cruz is not the most popular guy on Capitol Hill. When reporters write articles describing his colleagues’ feelings about the Texas senator, the words “hate” and loathe” make frequent appearances. And now that Cruz is surging in the Republican presidential primary, his chief rival appears to be making Cruz’s pariah status in D.C. a campaign issue.
“When you look at the way he’s dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there, frankly, like a little bit of a maniac,” Donald Trump said in a Fox News interview on Sunday. “You can’t walk into the Senate and scream and call people liars and not be able to cajole and get along with people. He’ll never get anything done, and that’s the problem with Ted.”
It sounds like a pretty reasonable knock against a guy who wants to run the country. If the members of legislative branch can’t stand him, how could it possibly make sense to put him in the White House?
But consider this: In the recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll of voters in the key early voting state of Iowa, Republican voters were asked who, among the top GOP candidates, would work most effectively with Congress. At the top of the heap, with 31 percent of the vote, was Cruz.
How is this possible? Sure, members of Congress don’t like Cruz. But it’s important to remember, the general public loathes Congress. What we’ve got here is a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation.
“The fact that Cruz is disliked by Washington is seen as a positive,” agreed Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “There’s also this idea that if he’s in Congress, he knows how to change Congress.”
Trump, he said, might decide that helping Cruz paint himself as the anti-Washington candidate is actually a poor choice.
“Part of the reason why Trump said that this weekend is that he likes to send up trial balloons. He likes to see what sticks when another candidate starts nipping at his heels.… He just hasn’t figured out what’s going to take down Cruz yet.”
Painting him as unpopular in Washington might not be the way to do it.
Read more from Rob Garver at The Fiscal Times
The GOP establishment’s mounting attacks on bombastic front-runner Donald Trump’s ability to lead the free world might be letting a little air out of his run, political operatives said — but they could backfire on the moderates.
GOP leaders and top donors have been huddling in recent weeks, strategizing on how to cut Trump out. Ad campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire by PACs for Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are hinting at disaster if Trump ends up in the Oval Office.
But the more moderate candidates show little sign of benefitting. Instead, it was ultraconservative Ted Cruz who pulled ahead of Trump in Iowa last week with 28 percent to Trump’s 26 percent in a Fox News poll. In New Hampshire, Cruz has jumped from sixth place in October to second place last week.
And operatives said the GOP has to be careful about fielding someone like Mitt Romney to counter Trump — a party standard-bearer who’s involvement could be seen by Trump supporters as a badge of honor.
Trump has to emerge unscathed from tomorrow night’s CNN debate and the holiday break to secure a good showing in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, Griffin said. But GOP insider Ford O’Connell said Trump remains a force to be reckoned with.
“This guy’s defied political gravity at least 17 times thus far,” O’Connell said. “If anyone is going to stop Donald Trump, it’s going to be Donald Trump.”
Read more from Jack Encarnacao at the Boston Herald
Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C., this month, Donald Trump declined to commit to an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Ben Carson, among other things, mispronounced the name of the terrorist group Hamas as "hummus" at the same gathering.
Neither Republican presidential hopeful's address to the group went over particularly well. But for Carson it was part of a growing narrative that verbal miscues were suddenly derailing the retired neurosurgeon's campaign, while Trump remains impervious to them.
Republicans told the Washington Examiner that there is a big difference between Trump's gaffes and Carson's. So far, they said, Trump's missteps aren't undermining his supporters' confidence in the way Carson's are.
"No matter what you think of what he has to say, Trump exudes confidence," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "Carson gets that deer in the headlights look when he makes a mistake or doesn't know what he's talking about. The voters might not know that you're wrong about an issue, but they will recognize a deer in the headlights."
O'Connell also noted that Trump can be adept at walking back untenable positions without acknowledging he has done so. When he proposed his Muslim ban, it was unclear whether American citizens and military personnel would be affected. He has gradually limited its scope in subsequent interviews and emphasized more that it would be a temporary measure, all while insisting that this was always the case.
Read more from W. James Antle III at The Washington Examiner
Donald Trump has the Republican Party establishment right where he wants them.
The divisive billionaire’s renewed threats to bolt from the GOP and run as an independent in the general election has party elders on edge that he’ll guarantee four more years of a Democrat in the White House.
“If he runs, Hillary’s the President. The numbers just don’t add up any other way,” said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell.
“I think he’s bluffing 100%. He’s doing it so that everyone else will back off of him and let him win this nomination in the way that he sees fit. He’s using it as leverage, and it’s a smart play for him,” said O’Connell.
Read more from Cameron Joseph at the New York Daily News
Ted Cruz’s strategy for winning the Republican presidential nomination is becoming clearer by the day.
The Texas senator continues to march toward primary season methodically cobbling together the segments of GOP voters, winning endorsements and rising at the polls particularly in Iowa.
But his increased appetite for taking on Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), as well as his repeated resistance to taking the gloves off with Donald Trump, sheds light on the senator’s fourth-quarter strategy.
“This week was probably his best week,” Ford O’Connell, an unaffiliated Republican strategist, said, noting the endorsement of major Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who has backed the last two Iowa caucus winners.
And for the first time since June, Cruz overtook front-runner Donald Trump in three Iowa polls over the past seven days, adding to his momentum in the early voting state.
But as his numbers and profile continue to rise, Cruz has deepened his feud with Rubio, who has also seen a rise in polls and profile, through barbs in the media, in dueling statements, and through surrogates.
O’Connell said that their “inner squabble” is a big deal as far as who can emerge as Trump’s biggest foil even though the “differences between them are so minute.”
“Rubio wisely figured out that national security would be his ticket to the nomination, and with events lining up the way they are lining up, it was a very smart play. Cruz sees that and wants to find a way to tamp down Rubio,” he said.
He added that the increasing emphasis on national security could be “extremely dangerous for Cruz—that’s why he’s busy…mitigating these attacks.” Cruz repeatedly brings up Rubio’s past support of a pathway to citizenship and casts him as a member of the party’s establishment that have failed to win the White House over the last eight years.
“Cruz has completely changed his M.O,” O’Connell said.
“In Washington, he’s always standing up and making spectacles on the Senate floor. Now that he’s running for president, he’s trying to paint the exact opposite of how he’s acted in Washington.”
Read more from Ben Kamisar at The Hill
Cracks are showing in the long-held truce between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as the simmering rivalry between the two candidates running atop GOP primary polls appears ready to spill into the open.
Trump has been openly warring with the entirety of the GOP presidential field — with the exception of Cruz — making the point that he’ll only go on the attack if he’s hit first.
Cruz, meanwhile, has been drafting behind Trump, openly acknowledging that it would be poor strategy for him to bash a candidate whose supporters he seeks and accusing the media of trying to arrange a “cage fight” between the two.
But there was movement on Cruz’s end Thursday, when The New York Times reported that Cruz questioned Trump’s judgment in front of donors at a closed-door fundraiser in Manhattan.
It was a soft jab that Cruz sought to soften further by calling the Times report “misleading.”
Still, Cruz did not challenge the central facts of the story, making it the furthest he’s gone toward criticizing Trump to date.
Republicans say Cruz has likely opened the door to a furious response from the Trump, the unpredictable showman who has been itching for a fight.
“Trump’s strategy has been to generate controversy, tout his standing in the polls, and go on the attack,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “With Cruz gaining on him, you can bet Trump will go after him as soon as he moves past this latest firestorm over not allowing Muslims into the country.”
The Trump campaign is not yet tipping its hand.
But Republicans say Cruz’s “judgment” jab could also be effective by framing the showman as unpredictable and erratic.
“A lot of Republicans view Trump as strong on national security issues and believe he’s a strong leader,” said O’Connell. “So by questioning his judgment, Cruz is subtly pointing out that Trump is erratic and liable to fly off the handle, which isn’t a quality people like in a leader.”
Read more from Jonathan Easley at The Hill