Bush debate performance fuels more doubts about his campaign

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The Pressure's on Jeb Bush Before Wednesday's Debate

Jeb Bush needed a strong performance at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate to silence the doubters. He did not get it.

His showing, widely viewed as lackluster, is likely to spur even more questions about his viability as a top-tier candidate, according to political strategists and donors.

"If he was looking to revive his campaign and replenish his coffers, tonight did not do him any justice," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

SEE MORE: Marco Rubio on Jeb Bush: 'I still have tremendous admiration' for him

Bush's campaign manager insisted immediately after the debate that the former Florida governor would remain in the 2016 presidential nomination race for the long haul.

But Bush found himself in the uncomfortable position on Thursday of tacitly acknowledging a poor debate performance while brushing off suggestions his campaign might be doomed.

"I wish I could talk as well as some of the people on the stage, the big personalities on the stage, but I'm a do-er," he said during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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Bush debate performance fuels more doubts about his campaign
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a town hall meeting at The Music Man Square, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, in Mason City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a town hall meeting at The Music Man Square, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, in Mason City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
GREENVILLE, SC - SEPTEMBER 18: Former Florida Governor and republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks to voters at the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum September 18, 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina. Eleven republican candidates each had twenty five minutes to talk to voters Friday at the Bons Secours Wellness arena in the upstate of South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks to a crowd of football fans during a tailgate party before an NCAA college football game between Georgia and South Carolina Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Athens., Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to employees at Foss Manufacturing during campaign stop in Hampton. N.H. Bush wanted to run for president as a joyful front-runner, above the fray of the pack. Instead, he heads into the fall campaign as a fighter with a foil: Donald Trump. "I believe that a conservative can win, campaigning with his arms wide open, with joy in his heart, speaking about the hopes and aspirations of the people, being on the side of the people that right now donât see their lives in the future being better than what they have today," Bush said in New Hampshire late last week. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)
MIAMI, FL - JUNE 15: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush waves on stage as he announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination during an event at Miami-Dade College - Kendall Campus on June 15 , 2015 in Miami, Florida. Bush joins a list of Republican candidates to announce their plans on running against the Democrats for the White House. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, poses for a selfie with a student during a town hall at La Progresiva Presbyterian School, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 01: Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a town hall style meeting at La Progresiva Presbyterian School on September 1, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Jeb continues to campaign for the Republican nomination. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, talks with students in a third grade class as teacher Judy Elder, left, looks on before a town hall at La Progresiva Presbyterian School, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a town hall meeting on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 14: Republican presidential hopeful and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (C) talks with members of the media as U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (L) (R-IA) and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R) (R-IA) look on during the Iowa State Fair on August 14, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Presidential candidates are addressing attendees at the Iowa State Fair on the Des Moines Register Presidential Soapbox stage. The State Fair runs through August 23. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, throws a baseball on the midway during a visit to the Iowa State Fair, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, talks with Dana Wanken, right, as he works the grill in the Iowa Pork Producers tent during a visit to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Walker is counting steps on his FitBit. Bush swears by a paleo diet. Bobby Jindal is a self-proclaimed "gym rat." With long travel days and a fresh slab of cherry pie never far away, the campaign trail is a notoriously unhealthy place to live. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 14: Republican presidential hopeful and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad eat a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa Pork Tent during the Iowa State Fair on August 14, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Presidential candidates are addressing attendees at the Iowa State Fair on the Des Moines Register Presidential Soapbox stage. The State Fair runs through August 23. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, holds up two lobsters during a campaign stop at Brown's Lobster Pound in Seabrook, N.H., Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. At right is owner Bruce Brown. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Republican presidential candidates from left, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson talk during a break during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush addresses guests during a town hall style gathering in Gorham, N.H., Thursday, July 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Maverick PAC conference Friday, July 17, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
AMHERST, NH - JULY 4: Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush greets supporters at the 4th of July Parade on July 4, 2015 in Amherst, New Hampshire. Bush is a front-runner in the polls for the 2016 presidential race with 14 other republican candidates. (Photo by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left, has a selfie taken with a supporter while participating in the Fourth of July Parade festivities in Amherst, N.H.,,Saturday, July 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signs autographs from the window of a food truck after he formally announced that he would join the race for president with a speech at Miami Dade College, Monday, June 15, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waits backstage as he is introduced before speaking at the Road to Majority 2015 convention in Washington, Friday, June 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waves to the crowd as he formally joins the race for president with a speech at Miami Dade College, Monday, June 15, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks at the Florida State University Conference Center in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, July 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
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In an interview with Fox News, Bush also said, "I knew this was going to be a long journey, but to suggest that the campaign is terminal ... Come on, that's pretty funny."

Bush came into the debate after dramatically downsizing his campaign staff and huddling with nervous donors to calm their fears, the result of persistent single-digit showings in opinion polls.

Those donors are probably even more anxious after Bush seemed to come out on the losing end of exchanges with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and disappeared from the screen for long stretches of time.

SEE MORE: After dismal debate, Bush seeks ways to steady campaign

"You have all these donors invested in him," Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, told Reuters after the debate. "At some point, they're going to change horses."

Bush hit fellow Floridian Rubio early with a jab at his attendance record for votes on the Senate floor. But in what became one of the debate's most talked-about moments, Rubio flipped the attack back at him, labeling Bush an opportunist.

The only reason Bush was making it an issue, Rubio said, was "because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."

Startled, Bush had no response.

"He went at Rubio with a knife," O'Connell said. "Rubio came back with a gun."

Rubio was diplomatic in a sweep of television interviews on Thursday, telling CNN that he thought Bush had been a "great governor."

"I don't believe that the way I'm going to win is by going after him or anybody else," Rubio said.

SEE MORE: Recap: CNBC GOP debate

Late in Wednesday's debate, Bush was asked whether fantasy football should be treated as gambling. He joked about his own fantasy team before suggesting the government should get more involved.

It was a rare moment when Bush got a chance to show his sense of humor and one that otherwise might have gone over well.

But Christie interjected, to the approval of the audience: "Are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football? We have - wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we're talking about fantasy football?"

Bush, whose diminished standing in the race was noted by the debate moderators, was not a factor for much of the night. Of the 10 candidates on the stage in Boulder, Colorado, for the main debate, the only one who spoke for less time than Bush was another struggling contender, U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

"I think he acquitted himself well, but he didn't dominate," said John "Mac" Stipanovich, a Florida lobbyist and a longtime Bush ally. "The summer soldiers among Jeb's supporters will not be comforted. Those made of sterner stuff will not be discouraged."

Polls have consistently had Bush in the single digits, far behind billionaire developer and reality TV star Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. The latest Reuters/Ipsos five-day tracking poll had Trump in the lead with 32 percent, Carson behind at 15.5 percent and Bush at just 7 percent.

(Reporting by James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Alana Wise in Washington; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Tom Brown)

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