Mired in the deepest political crisis of his career, Jeb Bush is turning to God for salvation.
Forced to slash campaign spending after falling far behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the Republican primary race, the former establishment favourite is looking to the party faithful to rescue his dream of following his brother and father to the White House.
On Friday, in the shadow of the giant satellite dishes of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Bush came to Virginia’s Regent University, an institution founded by the controversial televangelist Pat Robertson, to promote his credentials as a social conservative and champion of the church.
“I realised that Jesus was my saviour and I accepted him in the late 1980s,” said the former governor of Florida, stressing his anti-abortion record over the years since and a newfound support for those opposing gay marriage.
“Religious liberty is being challenged today not just overseas but here at home, and people of faith need to stand on principle to protect the first freedom of the greatest country on earth,” he explained.
Despite his history in Florida, Bible-thumping does not come naturally to Bush. Accused by Trump of lacking energy, he has taken to thumping a fist into his hand for emphasis.
“Excuse me,” he said, apologetically, to a startled woman in the front row at Regent on Friday.
Until recently, he might not have chosen to attend such an event. In September, this relative moderate turned down an invitation from the Family Research Council to appear at the notoriously conservative Values Voter Summit.
Now, Bush is not just paying homage to Robertson’s million-strong TV congregation – he has just set up a Religious Liberty Advisory Committee , with 100 pastors and politicians to help him develop policies that can outflank Trump and those on the religious right.
There is still more than a year to go to the general election on 4 November 2016, yet time is running out for Bush to salvage his hopes of contending in it. Not only do Republican primary elections begin in less than 100 days, but the donors who helped him assemble a record $100m war chest to fight Hillary Clinton are reportedly beginning to panic.
Asked by the Guardian how much of a role his donors had played in the decision to cut the payroll of his campaign staff by 40% on Friday, Bush replied with anger.
“None. That’s me asking for it,” he said, in an example of what are becoming rare exchanges with a reporter. “The donors are happy. In fact, I’ve been raising more money.
“It’s hard work. This fundraising stuff is not as easy people think it is,” he added, pointing to $1m raised last week in Detroit.
The tone got tetchier still the next day, when he was asked in South Carolina whether the cuts meant his campaign was struggling.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Bush said. “That’s my answer – blah, blah, blah.”
I have not met a person who thought Donald Trump would be the front-running candidate at this point. God bless him
At the weekend, Bush headed to Houston, to hunker down in a finance strategy meeting hosted by his father, George HW Bush, and attended by brother George W. Such explanations may have cut less mustard there.
Indeed, the cuts in Jeb’s Miami staff appear to be about more than just saving money, as the candidate seeks to show the family political clan he recognises the urgency of fighting the primary first.
“Every dollar that we can save in overhead is a dollar we can spend on television, radio, media and voter outreach,” he explained. “Our people in our headquarters who do extraordinary work are going to be offered the chance to go to beautiful states like Iowa and New Hampshire.”
George W Bush is due to do more fundraising for his brother this week, and the third-quarter figures that sparked this latest angst also revealed that Jeb’s uncles, Jonathan Bush and William HT “Bucky” Bush, have become “bundlers”: a role that sees them collect money for the candidate on behalf of rich friends and business associates, money that can be used directly by the campaign.
Jeb denies he took the primary for granted by focusing at first on the unlimited funds raised for his Super Pac, Right to Rise, but he accepts the finance strategy needs to change.
“This means [we are] lean and mean and I have the ability to adapt,” he said of Friday’s cuts.
“The circumstances when we started were different and I have not met a person who thought Donald Trump would be the frontrunning candidate at this point. God bless him for the success in that regard, we’ll see how long that lasts, but we have to adapt.”
The visit to Regent University and launch of the new religious advisory committee were signs of how the political message is also shifting. Trump has shown himself to be vulnerable among religious voters, particularly in early voting states like Iowa, where he has just fallen behind another anti-establishment candidate, Ben Carson, for the first time.
“I have a great relationship with Christianity,” said Trump when asked about this in a CNN interview broadcast on Sunday, but the billionaire property mogul’s efforts to show this can appear inauthentic.
Such vulnerability could perhaps open a window for Bush, who first carved a reputation on religious issues while fighting in Florida to prevent the assisted death of Terri Schiavo , a woman in an irreversible persistent vegetative state . More recently he was seen as among the more socially progressive Republicans on issues such as same-sex marriage.
But critics of the religious right say his campaign now risks being dragged far outside the mainstream.
“They are not the dominant frontrunner any more, so they are having to do the rounds of the party’s key constituencies, and one of the biggest is the religious right,” said Peter Montgomery, of the advocacy group People For the American Way .
“Because there is a smaller turnout for the primaries, it means you have to get the most intensely engaged voters, like the Tea Party and the religious right, and there is a big overlap between the two.”
The influence of the evangelical right is often assumed to have waned, but one only has to see the scale of academic institutions like Regent and its associated TV network to see it can still wield important power in the Republican party.
While Bush may still insist he supports same-sex marriage and is simply defending the right of Christians to oppose it, the campus he spoke at carried posters advertising services from those who seek to “cure” homosexuality.
“I think the religious right has been declared dead as a political force more than times than I can count, and every time it’s been proved wrong,” Montgomery concluded.