MEREDITH, N.H. — Self-described as a policy nerd and tagged as “low energy” by Donald Trump, Jeb Bush is reaching deeper to show voters the man inside as he fights for his political survival ahead of New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary.
Bush is speaking more passionately at campaign stops, and not just in outrage toward Trump, the bombastic billionaire leading the GOP in national polls. He’s offering a closer look inside his heart – chiefly as the father of a former drug addict – than he has over the past year in his unexpectedly difficult campaign for the presidency.
“What I learned was that the pain that you feel when you have a loved one who has addiction challenges and kind of spirals out of control is something that is shared with a whole lot of people,” Bush told about 300 addiction recovery advocates Tuesday at a conference near Manchester. New Hampshire has become a center of the nation’s renewed battle with heroin.
Bush’s elaboration about the ordeal that he says put his family “through hell” came as the one-time front-runner showed renewed confidence campaigning in New Hampshire.
He was talking about his daughter, Noelle, who was arrested in 2002, accused of trying to fill a fraudulent prescription for Xanax, a powerful anti-anxiety medication. The arrest was a public spectacle for Bush, then a first-term governor of Florida planning to seek re-election.
He has mentioned the episode briefly during the current campaign, among the precious few personal struggles he divulges about his very public family. In May, he mentioned the difficulty of having a loved one suffering dementia, a reference to his wife’s elderly mother.
With his daughter’s ordeal long past, Bush said he called Noelle this week to seek her permission to discuss its impact on him. Though the wonkish Bush made certain to point out the drug treatment policy enacted during his tenure as governor, he also said the public exposure enlightened him about the plight of others.
“I could be at a chamber of commerce event, and someone would look at me,” Bush said. “I could look them in the eyes and know that, as a mom or a dad or a spouse, that they were going through the same things.”
Far from unrestrained, it was simply a glimpse at Bush’s inner reflection, seldom seen as his highly anticipated campaign steered into uncertainty.
Beth Myers, 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, said it’s a sign that Bush has “found his footing.”
“He’s confident and comfortable talking about the serious issues that interest New Hampshire voters, even when those issues touch him personally,” said Myers, who is not affiliated with any 2016 campaigns.
Bush said often last year that people knew him as the son of former President George H.W. Bush and brother of former President George W. Bush, “but I’m going to have to show who I am, show my heart.”
And yet he seldom went further than offering the story of meeting his wife-to-be while traveling in her native Mexico as an exchange student in high school.
Asked about discussing his daughter’s ordeal, Bush told reporters, “It’s not easy, no.”
“We went through hell.”
Other candidates have compelling personal stories they tell with passion. Former tech company CEO Carly Fiorina, who also attended the addiction forum, has talked about losing her stepdaughter Lori to a drug overdose in 2009. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio talks with pride of his upbringing by Cuban-born parents.
And while Bush shares little about his life in a dynastic Republican family, he has become more passionate with the anecdotes he shares about his time as governor.
Speaking in Dover, he shook his head in frustration discussing the plight of single mothers in Florida when he became governor. “It’s not a pretty one,” he said grimly.
In Peterborough, he held a clenched fist to his chest as he described a high school senior’s struggle with basic math on a graduation test prior to education policy changes he enacted. “I cannot tell you how that angered me,” he said.
Voters have noticed. “I think he’s very sincere,” said John Polychronis, who asked Bush during a campaign stop about young people’s declining faith in government. “It’s clear he focuses on what you’re saying.”
Bush’s contempt for Trump bubbled over Wednesday when he was asked by New Hampshire voter Tom Emanuel to explain why he called his GOP rival “a jerk” last month.
Bush, who often discusses action he took improving care for Florida’s disabled, lashed out at Trump for mocking a New York Times reporter who is disabled during a campaign event last year.
“When anybody – anybody – disparages people with disabilities, it sets me off,” Bush said. “At what point do we say, enough of this!”
Bush’s remarks were punctuated by a spontaneous and rare, if more common this week, burst of applause.