Jeb Bush Charts Uncertain Course Heading Into South Carolina's Republican Primary

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a campaign stop at Wades Restaurant, Feb. 19, 2016 in Spartanburg, S.C.PlayPaul Sancya/AP Photo
WATCH Jeb Bush Suspends His Presidential Campaign

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, at least from the outside, was feeling good.

A crowd of supporters greeted him at the Eastlan Baptist Church on Saturday morning, where he was making his first precinct visit of the day ahead of South Carolina's Republican primary. He was joined by his mother, Barbara, his wife, Columba, his brother, Neil, and his son Jeb. Jr.

Seemingly buoyed by their presence, the Republican presidential candidate spoke to reporters and mentioned his plan was to go to Nevada on Sunday around noon. Then he was asked if there was anything that could change his plans.

"We'll see. We'll see," Bush said. "I don't think so."

His noncommittal answer echoed the sentiment of a senior adviser, Michael Steel, who just the day before declined to commit to going on with the campaign if Bush sustained a disappointing finish in South Carolina.

When asked if Bush would go on no matter how the former governor finished in South Carolina, Steel would only say, "Well, we’re looking forward to a great result in South Carolina. We’ve got people on the ground in the next states and right now he’s focused on showing people of South Carolina that he is ready on day one to be a great commander in chief."

Steel added that, post-South Carolina, the campaign "will move on from there."

The campaign had entered the Palmetto State with high hopes. Supporters, such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, proudly declared the state "Bush Country."

Bush, in a full embrace of his family's dynastic power, invited his brother, former President George W. Bush, and his sister-in-law Laura to campaign with him. Both his brother and father had won their primaries here.

For a time, all seemed well. Crowd sizes were surging and Bush was steady in South Carolina state polls.

And then a crushing defeat.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising star in the Republican party, the woman whom Bush had campaigned for and had sent his brother to court personally -- was endorsing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, making Bush's path to victory, both in the state and beyond, much more uncertain.

It was a major blow. A Winthrop University poll conducted in December of 2015 showed Haley had an 81 percent approval rating among likely Republican primary voters. Bush had long espoused the need for a governor as president; to have Haley, who referred to him as a "dear friend," endorse a rival whom Bush was painting as inexperienced was crushing.

"She’s a great person. I'm disappointed she didn't endorse me," Bush said of the snub.

When asked about the impact of the governor endorsing the young senator, Bush told ABC News, "I don't know. We'll see on Saturday."

The anguish was palpable, even noticeable by voters. In Summerville on Wednesday, minutes after the Haley endorsement was announced, a few self-proclaimed Bush supporters gave their advice to the candidate.

One was Edward Scott, 58, who told Bush that he'd known for a long time that Bush was the most qualified candidate. Scott urged Bush to "raise the bar in the next [debate] and try to be beyond the bullying."

"It appears that you do get knocked off-center like anybody would because of the insults to you and your family," he told Bush.

Another questioner asked Bush if he could be more of “an [S.O.B.]” like his brother.

The next day, rumors surfaced of money troubles. Sources told ABC News the rumors about a short supply of cash were definitively untrue.

"There are no issues," said an anonymous donor who sits on Bush's national finance committee. "We have a big fundraiser in [Washington] D.C. next week. Money is still coming in."

As a beleaguered Bush addressed reporters Wednesday, he shot down the rumors, saying he can assure voters that he was financially viable. When asked if he can go on to Nevada, he responded wearily, "Yeah, absolutely."

On Friday, he was more definitive.

"We're on the ballot in every state, he said. "My intention is to go forward but I'm not focused on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday. I'm focused on Friday and Saturday."

The stakes are high even if expectations are not. Bush needs a strong finish to prove his viability as the establishment candidate.

While polls are in no way conclusive, they can prove good weather vanes. In the three most recent state polls, Bush trailed Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Rubio, though a recent NBC/WSJ Marist poll showed he and Rubio were separated by only two points.

In Central on Friday, where Bush held his last event before primary day, the mood was heavy. Politico reported staffers were floating their resumes, which Bush vehemently denied. Staffers checked their phones anxiously. Campaign manager Danny Diaz and the communications team did damage control.

But Bush seemed unperturbed. He stuck to his optimistic message, fighting against the notion that loud words meant steady leadership.

"I will speak softly, but when we act, they will know that we’re acting in the interest of the United States of America, that we will do it fiercely and we will do it true to our beliefs," he said.

Then, on the eve of the primary, a possible a slip escaped.

“I want to thank you for allowing us to close out our campaign here,” he said as the crowd applauded.

Aides later clarified that, of course, he meant his South Carolina campaign. Still, the utterance seemed prescient; if all does not go well here in South Carolina, a shadow of things that could come.