Former President George W. Bush will be in Charleston, S.C., Monday on a mission to rescue his kid brother Jeb’s presidential campaign and help the Bushes try to complete a consecutive run of odd-numbered presidencies from 41 to 43 to 45.

It was South Carolina that, after U.S. Sen. John McCain’s victory in the New Hampshire primary in 2008, rallied behind Bush amid a brutal campaign, replete with scurrilous rumor-mongering about McCain, and set the then-Texas governor on the path to the GOP nomination and the White House.

He will arrive for the evening rally in the midst of a most unlikely election season, in which the far-and-away front-runner, nationally and in the Palmetto State, is Donald Trump. Early on in his unorthodox political odyssey, Trump belittled McCain’s heroism as a prisoner of war, an apparent violation of common decency and political etiquette that only seemed to make Trump stronger.

In Saturday’s debate, countless Trump “outrages” later and a week to the day before the critical primary, Trump tested the loyalty of South Carolina conservatives by doubling down on his assertions that the second President Bush failed to protect America from 9/11 and then led the nation, with lies, into a misbegotten war in Iraq.

Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday by John Dickerson, who moderated Saturday’s debate, whether he wasn’t making the Democratic Party’s argument against George W. Bush, Trump shrugged.

“I don’t care,” Trump said.

“I lost hundreds of friends,” Trump said at the debate before a hostile crowd that sounded stacked with Bush backers. “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe.”

“I’m not going to invite Donald Trump to the rally in Charleston on Monday afternoon when my brother is coming to speak,” Jeb Bush said.

“I don’t want to go,” Trump said.

“I’m rescinding the invitation,” Bush said. “I thought you might want to come, but I guess not.”

For Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, the confrontation sets up the South Carolina vote as a referendum on his brother’s presidency, which can only help him in a fractured field.

George W. Bush’s reputation has been on the mend of late. Last year, a CNN/ORC poll found that for the first time in more than a decade, more Americans had a favorable than unfavorable view of Bush and that he was more popular than President Barack Obama.

‘A nasty guy’

Bush, with his family name and more than ample resources, finished sixth with 2.8 percent of the vote in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. Eight days later, he finished fourth in the New Hampshire primary with 11 percent of the vote, behind Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. It is a sign of just how anemic his campaign has been that that was considered by the campaign and the media a relatively strong finish that gave him some momentum going into South Carolina.

What the former president thinks or might say about Trump on Monday remains to be seen. It is not even clear that Trump is the rival of his brother whom George W. Bush most reviles.

In the fall, Politico reported that Bush had told donors to his brother’s campaign at a fundraiser in Colorado that Cruz was the Republican candidate who most nettled him.

“I just don’t like the guy,” Bush was reported to have said.

South Carolina is a Bush-friendly mix of military-minded conservatives and establishment Republicans who covet the state’s role as the place that picks the ultimate winner. It is a reputation that was burnished by Bush’s 2008 victory and tarnished by Newt Gingrich’s win in 2012 on the strength of a compelling debate performance two days before the primary in which the former House speaker laced into the liberal media. Gingrich’s campaign peaked in South Carolina.

While there was no singular Gingrich moment Saturday, the debate was exceptionally rough and tumble, with few moments of grace and with both Trump and Rubio repeatedly characterizing Cruz as a liar.

“You can’t lie and then hold up the Bible, OK?” Trump said of Cruz on “Face the Nation” Sunday. “He consistently lies. What he did to Ben Carson was a disgrace. What he did with the voter violation form, which is a fraud, is a disgrace. And you can’t do that. You can’t hold up all of these values and hold up the Bible and then lie.”

“He’s a nasty guy,” Trump said Saturday of the Texan at the next podium.

“I will say, it is fairly remarkable to see Donald defending Ben after he called him, ‘pathological’ and compared him to a child molester, both of which were offensive and wrong,” Cruz replied.

Blood sport

The Trump-Bush exchanges were also very personal.

“He has had the gall to go after my mother,” Bush said. “Look, I won the lottery when I was born 63 years ago, looked up, and I saw my mom. My mom is the strongest woman I know.”

“She should be running,” Trump replied.

“This is not about my family or his family. This is about the South Carolina families that need someone to be a commander in chief that can lead,” Bush said. “I’m that person.”

At that point, Dickerson, seeking a moment of calm, asked Kasich, who has assiduously avoided the punch and counterpunch of the campaign, “Would you weigh in?”

“I’ve got to tell you, this is just crazy, huh?” Kasich replied to laughter from the audience. “This is just nuts, OK? Jeez, oh, man. I’m sorry, John.”

But in the context of South Carolina political history, it was just another Saturday night at the fights.

“Most of the South and particularly this part come from the tradition of the culture of honor,” said Scott Huffmon, who teaches Southern politics at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. “When it was originally settled, law enforcement was sparse, and all you had was your reputation, so because it could turn violent, you had to be polite, but as soon as you were threatened, you had to respond with overwhelming force. So you add that sort of background to the fact that politics in South Carolina has always been about demagoguery, and you get just very cliché in book — bare-knuckled, blood sport. It’s just one of the places where the clichés ring true.”

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EXPERT REPORTING

American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove is covering the run-up to Saturday’s South Carolina primary. For Tilove’s coverage Monday of former President George W. Bush’s campaign appearance with his brother Jeb Bush, go to mystatesman.com.

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(c)2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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