02/18/2016 14:46 EST | Updated 02/18/2017 00:12 EST

Defending Dubya: How George W. Bush's record became a GOP primary issue

CHARLESTON, United States — Fending off attacks on George W. Bush from anti-war liberals used to be part of David Wilkins's job description when he was U.S. ambassador to Canada a decade ago.

It even compelled him to pipe up during the neighbour's national election as it became clear the Martin Liberals' 2006 re-election strategy hinged on semi-subliminal Bush-bashing.

He's now defending his old boss on home soil. This time the offender is the human hand grenade clanging about the Republican presidential race, exploding party orthodoxies: Donald Trump.

In this race the Bush-lied-people-died, anti-Iraq-war rabble-rousing is coming from the Republican front-runner in Wilkins's crucial and quite conservative home state of South Carolina.

Wilkins was the top lawmaker in the state. He supported the first President Bush in his 1988 campaign; co-chaired the younger Bush's state campaign in 2000; was appointed to Ottawa; and is now back home, campaigning for Jeb Bush.

"George W. Bush is beloved in South Carolina," Wilkins said in an interview.

"He has high favourables — 85 per cent — among people who'll vote in the Republican primary. He's very popular.... You just have to wonder about the tactic of criticizing President Bush in South Carolina."

Wilkins spent some time with his old boss this week, travelling together to a campaign event. He said the 43rd president is in a good place as a new grandfather, and while he might object to some of Barack Obama's policies, he's avoided criticizing his successor.

"That's because he's an honourable person. He doesn't believe one should sit back in an armchair and criticize their successor," Wilkins said. "He's got opinions. But he's got too much respect for the office."

Bush has gotten slightly partisan in recent days. He's all over South Carolina talk radio in ads promoting his brother's candidacy. And in a rare political speech, he took a subtle swipe at his family's tormenter-in-chief. 

Trump has blasted his presidential record and mocked his brother on every conceivable front — from taunts about Jeb Bush's stamina ("Low energy") to tweets about his spectacles ("(He) got contact lenses and got rid of the glasses. He wants to look cool, but it's far too late. 1% in Nevada!")

"I understand that Americans are angry and frustrated," George W. Bush said, referring to Trump's appeal without mentioning him by name. 

"But we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and frustration. We need someone that can fix the problems that cause our anger and frustration, and that's Jeb Bush."

Trump, on the other hand, spared few niceties in discussing the ex-president whose approval rating among Republicans towers around 77 per cent, according to one reported poll.

Did the 43rd president keep Americans safe? Jeb Bush says so. Not Trump: "I'm sorry, but we weren't safe, the World Trade Center came down, which was the greatest attack in history on this country."

He followed up with a shot over Iraq: "You had (George W. Bush) on the aircraft carrier saying all sorts of wonderful things, how the war was essentially over. Guess what? Not over. You know, the war with Iraq is a disaster... Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. One thing about him, he killed terrorists. Now Iraq is a harbour for terrorism."

Wilkins points out that there are eight military bases in South Carolina. He's not sure how its veterans will receive these comments, here in a state he refers to as "Bush Country."

But political observers here don't see it generating enough outrage to revive Bush's fortunes. Most polls have the younger brother languishing in fourth place.

David Woodard has worked on political campaigns for decades. He isn't involved in this one, but detects big differences. Jeb's father and brother each had at least one win before entering South Carolina, whereas Jeb hasn't finished higher than fourth in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Also, the elder Bushes each faced one major rival: Bob Dole and John McCain. This field is muddier.

"Jeb's ... competing against at least three (others)," said Woodard, who teaches at Clemson University. "He doesn't stand out the way they do."

Robert Oldendick of the University of South Carolina put it bluntly. For all the money Bush has spent advertising here, there's little lift to show for it: "It seems in South Carolina, much like in the rest of the country, that he's not been able to get any traction."

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press