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Thursday, August 24, 2017

“Please clap,” Jeb Bush wryly told a subdued crowd in New Hampshire last week, a moment that epitomizes his problem.

The pundits call it lack of traction. Among too many voters it’s lack of interest.

If Jeb bombs in New Hampshire, he’s done. Even if he doesn’t quit the race, it’s over.

A year ago this scenario was unimaginable. He had more money, more brains, more connections and more governing experience than any other Republican wanting to be president. Like many people, I thought his nomination would be a slam dunk.

The gaseous rise of Donald Trump upended everything, but not only for Jeb. The other candidates had to scramble, too. Some did a better job.

Sure, Iowa is a silly place to start a presidential campaign. Its demographics are freakishly white, and the GOP electorate is anomalously dominated by evangelical Christians.

Still, Jeb spent plenty of time and money there, and wound up with only 2.8 percent of the vote. That’s miserably weak, and there’s no positive spin.

What’s happening? The answer is, for better or worse: Not much.

Jeb hasn’t made any huge, embarrassing blunders on the campaign trail. He’s not obnoxious or unlikable. True, he’s not an electrifying personality, but in most election cycles that wouldn’t disqualify him.

Obviously, he misjudged the depth of the anger and division within his own party. He isn’t the only candidate to get caught off guard.

But he is the only Bush on the ballot, and that’s probably hurt him more than it has helped. Jeb isn’t the one who invaded Iraq and basically exploded the Mideast. He isn’t the one who jacked up the deficit with war spending and then left the U.S. economy teetering on a cliff.

That was his brother, but seven years later lots of voters haven’t forgotten. Before committing to Jeb, they need to be convinced that he’s way different from George W., that he’s wiser and more careful, and that he doesn’t have a Dick Cheney blow-up doll riding shotgun.

So far, there is no sign of a grass-roots pro-Jeb frenzy. The fact he was Florida’s governor for two terms isn’t wowing the masses — even in Florida.

Polls here show Jeb trailing Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. He is only slightly ahead of the sleepwalking Ben Carson.

How is this possible? That question is echoing among the heavy hitters who gave more than $100 million to Jeb’s super PAC. They’re running out of patience.

Jeb’s new strategy is tag-teaming with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to tear down Rubio, who surged impressively and finished third in Iowa. Christie is playing the Don Rickles role, insulting Rubio in public, while the Bush team bankrolls a flurry of anti-Marco ads in the media.

The New York Times reports that Jeb has already spent $20 million attacking his former protege. I guess this means no more workouts together at the Biltmore gym.

It’s a grim battle for the sane wing of the Republican Party, which means placing at least third in New Hampshire.

The positioning is crucial because Trump’s vaudeville act is starting to fray, and the icy zealotry of Cruz scares many conservatives.

If this were a script, you would now write in a timely entrance by the seasoned, well-credentialed Jeb Bush.

Except, wait — there’s baby-faced, inexperienced Marco ahead of him. Way ahead.

Here’s a guy who has accomplished zero in the Senate, flip-flops when he feels the heat and can’t even manage his own credit cards. How is he beating an old pro like Jeb?

By successfully casting himself as a fresh and electable alternative. Rubio’s only got one speech, but he’s good at it. Ironically, he grew up to be slicker and more calculating than his mentor.

Such is Jeb’s desperation that he has a new campaign commercial using a photo of Terri Schiavo. She was the brain-dead woman whose husband and parents were locked in a legal fight over the continuation of life-support procedures.

As governor, Jeb inserted himself into the case, ultimately involving his president brother and Congress in the effort to keep a feeding tube in Schiavo, who’d been comatose for 13 years.

Eventually the courts put a stop to the political meddling, and she was allowed to die.

The episode was Jeb’s worst mistake in office, an obscene governmental intrusion into a private family tragedy. Now he’s dredging up the memory in hopes of attracting extreme right-to-life voters.

If he asks you to clap, you know what to do.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.

(c) 2016, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush listens to a question during an interview with Reuters at Nonie’s Restaurant in Peterborough, New Hampshire October 13, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder