SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — The campaign trail turned rough Wednesday for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as he reached for a strong showing in South Carolina's GOP primary Saturday.
First, news leaked that Gov. Nikki Haley will endorse rival Marco Rubio, a development that Bush said left him "disappointed."
Then, at his own town hall event at a Charleston-area club, he got more unsolicited advice — mostly about how to handle front runner Donald Trump — than policy questions.
Take the high road. Be more like brother George, the former president. "You could raise the bar," said Edward Scott, of Frederick, Maryland.
"I don't think your message is resonating," Scott told Bush in front of about 300 people. "It appears that you do get knocked off centre, as anyone would."
It was all about front runner Donald Trump, the race's taunter-in-chief, who has relentlessly called Bush "weak" and generally dominated the race.
Bush has responded by dealing head-on with Trump.
On Wednesday, Bush called Trump "a bully" best dealt with by a "punch back in the nose."
But the debate over how to handle Trump comes just three days before the primary in South Carolina, where Bush's brother and father both won big victories in 2000 and 1998. Bush is driving to show momentum in the South Carolina primary if he wants to be a viable candidate heading into the March 1 Tuesday voting, when 13 states hold nominating contests.
At one point during Wednesday's event, Bush mimicked pundits suggesting the race is over.
"It's all decided, we don't have to go vote I guess, it's all finished," Bush told the crowd in remarks circulated by rival campaigns. "I should stop campaigning maybe huh? It's all done. That's not how democracy works."
The criticism bled into the crowd.
Republican voter David Villinger suggested to Bush that the feud with Trump was beneath the son and brother of former presidents.
"I think the campaign has been co-opted by the P.T. Barnum of our time," Villinger told Bush, referring to Trump. "And I think he is getting you off your message — your good message."
Bush defended his approach, saying "This is what I do. This is called campaigning right now."
"I will not take a step back for a guy that's like he is. Never," Bush said, prompting applause from the group.
A retired military serviceman capped the questioning by asking Bush: "I like your brother (George). Can you be — excuse me for saying in the vernacular — a son-of-a-bitch?"
Bush replied, "I will be tough. I will be resolute. I will be firm. I will be determined."
AP writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
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Thomas Beaumont, The Associated Press