If you thought Jeb Bush looked awkward on TV, you should see his desperation in New Hampshire

What, me awkward?
What, me awkward?
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Laconia, New Hampshire

At this point, the stump speeches of Jeb Bush recall nothing so much as Sarah Palin without the charming accent or the verve.

Bush has turned in a series of mostly cringe-inducing performances in the GOP presidential debates, but his events in New Hampshire have taken the awkwardness to a whole new level.

The excruciating video of Bush pleading for applause after a lackluster zinger is made all the more painful when you consider how often he talks over much more worthy applause lines, cutting off the audience even when they are enthusiastic.

Last night, the first question came from a woman in the audience who sad she been wounded during two tours of duty in Afghanistan. What would Jeb do to keep the threat of ISIS from spreading to the US?

Thanking her for her question, Bush said:

It is discouraging that the one expectation in return for patriotic action of being engaged in keeping us safe overseas, you would think, the one thing that would be the covenant, the contract, is the veterans affairs that is focused on the unique challenges of people when they get out of the military after service. That is my first priority to fix. In the long run, keeping us safe.

Before the crowd could process that word salad, he was on to his plan to defeat ISIS. It’s a comprehensive plan, produced by the best foreign policy experts that money can buy, many of them veterans of his brother or his father’s administrations. A nod to Ronald Reagan and Jeb’s dad—which drew warm applause that only underscored why many were in the crowd that night—led into a riff on the need for a policy to defeat ISIS abroad.

He began ticking off points on his plan (arm the Kurds, the “fiercest fighters!”) which soon became a rambling critique of the US Air Force’s decision to drop leaflets warning Syrian workers of an anti-Islamic State bombing mission: “They know they are enemy combatants!” Seconds later, he was criticizing Ted Cruz’s call for “carpet bombing” in Syria as naïve bluster.

It didn’t get any better from there:

  • Asked if his plans to tackle mental health problems could match those of Ohio Governor John Kasich, he talked infelicitously about his daughter’s past challenges with substance abuse before suggesting that it was high time we “discover the brain.”
  • When a man asked whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership would threaten US jobs, he dodged the question, saying he hadn’t read it and that the text isn’t yet public (it has been for months). Jeb went on to discuss Asian geo-politics, intellectual property, and Chinese labor standards—all somewhat relevant, but not even coming close to answering the man’s question.
  • A pale young man stood in the back to ask what he thought of Jeb’s father’s phrase “New World Order,” long fuel for conspiracy theorists. You could tell Bush sensed trouble, saying “I don’t know what it means to you, so…I’m not going to answer it, it makes me nervous.”
  • He told the crowd that Donald Trump couldn’t insult his way to the White House, but when a woman asked him to denounce all the attack mailers she had received from his Super PAC, Right to Rise, Bush replied that “this is not beanbag,” before disclaiming responsibility. “My mission is to go to as many town halls as I can, to show my heart, to show my spine, to show my mind, to simplify it down.”
  • Queried on climate change, he told the audience that he wasn’t a denier because he trusted scientists, before noting that “the things that we are on the verge of experiencing are going to be wondrous” and that he is “totally all-in on the discovery of cures.”
  • Asked about the student loan burden, he referenced his own experience as a college student who graduated early and worked throughout college—as the eldest son of a wealthy political dynasty.

It’s plain that Bush’s vocal contortions aren’t the product of a vacant mind, but an anxious one—his brother George’s famous malapropisms were also numerous, but never slowed him down. You can tell that candidate Bush is aware that he sounds foolish, and that makes him even more painfully self-aware. He is also clearly exhausted, after some 60 town halls across the state. But after all the millions he raised, and all those endorsements from the party establishment, here he is sitting in third or fourth place, depending on the polls.

Bush is now, weirdly, the pivot in the race for establishment voters reluctant to embrace senator Marco Rubio and skeptical of Kasich. The party machers would like to see him ride off into the sunset so they can anoint someone else, but Bush has the war chest to keep marching.

And so he plods on.