Jeb ain’t dead. After his disastrous performance in the CNBC debate on Wednesday, pundits pulped the former Florida governor. Simultaneously, they hailed the rise in the presidential race of Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who bested Bush in a key debate exchange.

But on Bush’s first trip to Iowa after the debate, even as crowds treated Rubio like a rock star, he showed distinct signs of life. Amidst an ongoing rumble over the leaking of a presentation to donors that outlined ways to attack Rubio and cast doubt on his past and character, the supposedly subdued candidate showed plenty of fight. For starters, in an interview taped in Miami by NBC and to be broadcast on Sunday, he simply said he “didn’t see” the presentation before it was leaked.

Rubio taped his own Sunday interview in Iowa, answering a question from CBS about whether Bush had ever been his mentor by saying he “was a big part of me”.

“I don’t know about labels like that,” he added, “but he was most certainly a big part of my career. And I have tremendous admiration. I said that at the debate. You’re never going to hear me badmouth him.”

Rubio said, nonetheless: “He said something, I had to respond … I do believe that Jeb has been convinced by people around him that he needs to attack me in order to be more successful. I don’t personally agree with it, but I’m not running his campaign.”

Amidst all this, in Des Moines, Republican power broker and Bush supporter David Oman hailed Saturday as “a boffo day”. His candidate had delivered an impassioned speech at the Growth and Opportunity Party, where 10 GOP candidates spoke to nearly 2,000 potential caucus-goers at the Iowa State fairgrounds.

Bush made a rare reference to his role in the 2005 Terri Schiavo case, took the odd shot at Rubio and contrasted himself, forcefully, with frontrunner Donald Trump.

Bush’s pitch has long been that he is the most presidential Republican candidate – as supporter Chad Airhart said in Des Moines: “Close your eyes, imagining any one of these candidates behind big desk in the oval office. It’s real easy to imagine Jeb Bush back there.”

But here, in a state where evangelical voters dominate, he made a speech explicitly rooted in faith. Bush said several times that he had “a servant’s heart”.

He also discussed Terri Schiavo. As governor of Florida, Bush intervened in a legal battle over whether Schiavo’s husband could take his wife, who had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, off her life support. The case sparked national controversy and federal legislation to allow Schiavo’s parents sue to keep their daughter alive. On Saturday, in a pro-life state, Bush reflected on his role in the case and said: “I erred on the side of life.”

Bush then took another, mild jab at Rubio’s poor attendance record in the Senate – the subject of Bush’s most embarrassing debate moment, a simple putdown from the senator – by way of complimenting the Iowa senator Chuck Grassley.

“You should do what Chuck Grassley does,” he said. “You should show up and vote.”

But he saved the heat for Trump.

“Leadership is not about me me me,” he said, “not about pushing people down to make themselves look better. It’s about uniting the country around common purposes.”

He also referred to the billionaire’s recent Twitter-fuelled embroglio, in which Trump’s account retweeted a message which implied Iowa voters suffered from brain damage. The retweet was blamed on a campaign intern. Nonetheless, Trump was upset that he had fallen behind Ben Carson in Iowa.

“Poll numbers go down and poll numbers go up,” Bush said, “but when they’re down you don’t insult Iowa voters.”

The real advantage in Iowa for Bush, however, may lie in his organization. Early in the campaign, Bush tried to play down expectations in the Hawkeye state. But supporters there are now boasting about his ground game as he moves to head off a surging Rubio, who is far weaker on the streets and in the town halls.

Tim Albrecht, a top state operative working for Bush, said “the ground team in Iowa is second to none … a thriving organization churning through voter contacts every single day, building up the database and finding out where activists where landing.

“The point is there are over three months until caucuses and we’re building an organization now so we’re ready when it’s go time.”

The only candidate with more staffers on the ground in Iowa? Trump.

Iowa Republicans have long been perplexed by Rubio’s relative lack of organization in the state, where it seems he has a strong presence in just one town, the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny. Bush supporters are correspondingly confident they can out-hustle Rubio in Iowa.

After all, as their candidate bragged on Saturday, he has been involved in Iowa caucuses since 1980, when his father, George HW Bush, first ran for president. In the six competitive Republican presidential caucuses in the state between then and 2016, a Bush has been on the ballot in three.

On Saturday, Chris McLinden, who chairs the Bush campaign in Dallas County, thought Rubio was “the flavor of the day”. In contrast, he thought his candidate was built to last. McLinden noted that the Bush campaign has weekly conference calls with all its precinct captains. While he admitted they hadn’t found an activist in all 1,700 precincts in the state, noting a weakness in rural Chickasaw County in northeastern Iowa, McLinden said Bush was covered in major metropolitan areas and major precincts.

“I don’t think he has the infrastructure,” McLinden said of Rubio, though he did note that the Florida senator “gives a great speech.”

After Rubio’s speech at the fairgrounds on Saturday, he was received like a rock star … or at the very least like Donald Trump, surrounded by reporters, fans and even professional autograph seekers, sensing a good investment.

For nearly 30 minutes Rubio was surrounded. He studiously ignored reporters as his hands became smeared with blue ink from the pictures and stickers thrust his way to sign. He left just before Bush took the stage.

Bush got a decent reaction as well, then plodded through the crowd as people came up for autographs and selfies. He took questions, engaging in old-fashioned retail politics.

To McLinden, despite the fact his “back’s against the wall and every pundit in the world is against him and writing his obituary”, his candidate is in a good place.

“We all perform better under pressure,” he said. This is Bush’s chance to do so.

  • This article was amended on 1 November 2015. Jeb Bush’s Meet the Press interview was filmed in Miami, not Iowa as we originally stated.

This article titled “Jeb Bush supporters insist he’s not dead yet and Rubio is the ‘flavor of the day'” was written by Ben Jacobs in Des Moines, Iowa, for theguardian.com on Sunday 1st November 2015 19.04 UTC

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