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By Anthony Man, Sun Sentinel (TNS)

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida — Jeb Bush emphasized terrorism and the economy during a speech to home-state civic leaders and supporters Monday, but he couldn’t escape the long shadow of Donald Trump.

Bush, the former Florida governor, spoke at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches — just a few miles from one of Trump’s resorts, the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. If Trump walked into the venue, an audience member wondered, what would Bush say.

Bush responded with a challenge: “I’d say, ‘Donald I’ll take you one-on-one in debate. Any time. Any place. You name it, I’ll do it.'”

At the beginning of 2015, Bush was widely considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. At year’s end, he’s far behind Trump, the billionaire real estate investor whose presence was felt several times during Monday’s appearance.

When another audience member wondered who among the pack of Republican presidential candidates was the funniest, Bush said the comedy champs are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“They both are pretty funny,” Bush said before adding: “You thought I was going to say somebody else.”

Bush said the U.S. needs to stand up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and he brought up Trump. “Donald Trump may like Vladimir Putin because he (Putin) praised him (Trump). … The best thing you can do with Trump is say something nice about him. He immediately thinks you’re a wonderful person.”

Bush raced through his 15-minute speech, which had three broad themes: The U.S. needs to do a better job at combating the Islamic State and the military needs to be built up; the U.S. economy needs to be improved through growth, which he said would come from changing the tax laws and reducing government regulation; and, he said, life is “a gift from God.”

He called the Islamic State “the threat of our time. We need serious leadership to destroy the threat.”

“I promise you, should I be the president of the United States, I’ll be a commander in chief — not a divider in chief, not an agitator in chief — someone that will respect the military and provide the necessary support so we can get back to peace through strength.”

He reminded the crowd that he was a conservative, tough-on-spending governor when he led Florida from 1999 to 2007.

The audience of 900 was larger than the usual crowd at the Forum Club, which attracts political, legal, business and government movers and shakers to its luncheons. Many were encouraged to attend by the local Bush campaign operation, which had people on hand passing out “Jeb!” stickers to everyone who entered.

As many as half declined the stickers. And after the speech, when a long line formed to take selfies with Bush, at least half the audience left without taking the time to wait to get a picture with the candidate.

Earlier, in response to a question, Bush explained that the selfie is a major new form of political communication. “Look, it wasn’t that long ago that people wanted signatures on things. Forget that. (Now it’s) I want my damn selfie,” he said.

(Tips from Bush: Hold the phone horizontally, not vertically. And hold the phone high “because you look skinnier.”)

Bush, whose more moderate stand on how to deal with illegal immigrants than some of his rivals, has faced skepticism from conservatives. On Monday, he offered a mixture of understanding and toughness.

He said the vast majority of immigrants come to the country to provide better lives for their families. But, he said, “they shouldn’t stay, plain and simple. We need to enforce our laws. It doesn’t matter what their motivation is.”

In a swipe at rival candidate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Bush said, “I haven’t changed my views. Candidates seem to go into the witness protection program on this issue.” Rubio was a part of the so-called Gang of Eight who pushed immigration reform through the U.S. Senate, but then backed away from it as it floundered in the House and became politically unpopular with many conservative grass roots activists.

Bush praised a student question about how the U.S. should deal with China’s attempt to expand its influence in Asia by building islands in the South China Sea. He said he’s often asked by reporters “about things that are trivial. That was the most substantive question I’ve heard in a long time.”

He said the U.S. must make its presence felt in the reason, needs to support allies like Japan and South Korea, should embrace the Trans-Pacific trade agreement, and should not hesitate to fly military aircraft or sail warships in the area.

He also criticized a questioner, a high school student, who said murders haven’t gone down under the Stand Your Ground law Bush signed into law as governor that allows a person to use deadly force “if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm.” He said her statistics were wrong.

He said gun control doesn’t make communities safer and said police need to get a message that they’re supported by elected officials so they don’t get the feeling that doing their jobs “is not worth it.’

In response to a question on diplomatic relations with Cuba, he said that on his first day in office he’d move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv — something neither his father nor brother did — and said he would end diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Earlier Monday, Bush attended a campaign event at a Hialeah restaurant, where he appeared in an unbuttoned shirt, sans tie. At the Forum Club luncheon he wore a suit. Later he headed to a town hall meeting in Ocala. On Tuesday, he’s back in New Hampshire, the state with the first in the nation primary — and the one the Bush camp is counting on to resuscitate his candidacy.

Republicans in the audience gave Bush mixed reviews.

Karen Marcus, a former Palm Beach County commissioner, said she likes Bush though hasn’t committed to his campaign, said “it’s way too early to write him off.” Marcus found it refreshing that Bush “wants to talk about policy issues. He isn’t the shrillest.”

Sid Dinerstein, former chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said Bush was a great governor. “When Jeb was governor, he was the best governor in the country. He took on the teachers. He took on the newspaper editorial boards. What more could you ask for?”

But, he said, Bush’s time is over. Dinerstein thinks Bush and all the other candidates should drop out and face what he sees as inevitable: Trump as the Republican nominee for president.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican who represented parts of Palm Beach County, said Monday’s speech — especially the knowledge he showed answering a range of audience questions — showed why he’s best prepared of all his party’s candidates. “He was very good, very animated, forceful in his delivery.”

Still, Foley said, “he’s been slow to catch fire.”

Anita Mitchell, former chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party and chairwoman of the Bush campaign in Palm Beach County, said her candidate will do better than the polls and pundits are predicting. “I certainly don’t count Jeb out. He’s high energy and he’s competitive as heck. He’s working harder than any of them are.”

(c)2015 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as if he is sleeping while talking about his opponent Jeb Bush during a Trump for President campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina December 4, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake


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