Jeb Bush didn’t back down Friday as he faced skeptical conservatives, staunchly defending his stands on immigration and education policy while pointing to his record as a tax-slashing governor as proof of his conservative bona fides.
The former Florida governor’s appearance before the Conservative Political Action Conference served as a reminder of his overall challenge and strategy: working to keep conservatives from rebelling and rallying behind a strong alternative for the Republican presidential nomination but not giving up the positions that could help him in a general election battle with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Bush started down that path with his 26-minute appearance at the conservative meeting, aided by a boisterous crowd of supporters who drowned out the occasional jeer. Electing to take questions from Fox News’ Sean Hannity rather than deliver prepared remarks, Bush didn’t retreat from any of the stances that have made many conservatives wary of his possible candidacy.
Instead, he urged his critics to consider him as a “second choice” and called on Republicans to broaden their tent.
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There are a lot of conservatives who “don’t know that they’re conservative,” he said. “If we share our enthusiasm, love for our country and believe in our philosophy, we will be able to get Latinos and young people and other people that we need to win.”
Bush’s appearance at the meeting was more chaotic than the others. A Georgia man dressed as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence staged a walkout to protest Bush’s appearance, countered by dozens of supporters sporting red “Jeb! ‘16” stickers who filed into the ballroom.
“That was raucous and wild and I loved it,” Bush later told a gathering of supporters. He promised an optimistic campaign if he runs, and said the party needed to “not just unite a conservative party, we also need to reach out to people that haven’t been asked in a while. Young people, Hispanics, African-Americans. We should be taking this case everywhere we can.”
Though Bush has proved a formidable fundraiser, secured a raft of weighty advisers and landed impressive hires in key primary states, conservatives – who play an outsized role in many states – remain wary of his support for the Common Core educational standards and for a path to legal status for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
Critics view Common Core as a federal intrusion into what they regard as a local function. But Bush defended the standards while criticizing the Obama administration as meddling unnecessarily.
He touted his education record in Tallahassee, claiming the state has more school choice – public and private – than any other state.
“It’s a record of accomplishment, of getting things done,” Bush said of his tenure as Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007. He boasted of slashing spending and leaving his successor with $9.5 billion in reserves.
“They called me Veto Corleone,” he said, a reference to the nickname he acquired after slashing lawmakers’ pet projects from the state budget.
Bush also wouldn’t relent on immigration. He supports a path to legal status for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, a position unpopular with conference attendees, who consider it amnesty.
“The simple fact is there is not a plan to deport 11 million people,” Bush said. “We should give them a path to legal status where they work, they don’t get government benefits, they learn English and make a contribution to our society.”
He noted that his support for a path to legalization doesn’t preclude securing the border: “Let’s do it, man,” he told Hannity. “Let’s control the border.”
He defended as “pro-life” his role in the Terri Schiavo case and in passing a law in 2003 – later struck down as unconstitutional – that ordered doctors to reinsert a feeding tube into the comatose woman six days after it had been removed under court order.
“The most vulnerable in our society should be at the front of the line. They should receive our love and protection,” he said.
He confirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage, telling Hannity he believes in “traditional marriage.”
And he walked the line on marijuana, saying he opposes legalization but thinks “states ought to have that right to do it.”
Bush’s challenge was apparent well before he took the stage. He and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were lustily booed when Hannity asked the audience to cheer for the candidates they liked best.
But Bush told the skeptics he was “marking ‘em down as neutral, and I want to be your second choice.”
In an interview Friday with McClatchy, potential rival Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d support Bush if Bush were the party nominee.
“I’d have to think about that. But I certainly don’t know right now,” the New York real estate developer said.
Trump said Bush would continue to be hurt by his stands on education and immigration.
“I think it’s going to be very hard for him, certainly to get the nomination, and I think it’s going to be hard for him to win the race,” Trump said.
Onstage later, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham spent much of her time rapping Bush as well, securing a round of applause as she asked the crowd “how many of you are skeptical of another Bush term?”
Ingraham lambasted what she said had been a “coronation” by party elites to choose Bush and called on conservative activists to embrace “not a conservative who comes to CPAC to check a box, but a conservative who comes to CPAC because he is a conservative.”
Bush said he’d campaign as his “own man,” but some in the audience said that issues aside, they’d simply had enough of the Bush family.
“I can’t do another Bush in the White House,” said Jenn Feagley, a psychology major at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who was born half a decade after Bush’s father left office. “How do we make the argument that we don’t need a Clinton dynasty with a Bush dynasty? This is supposed to be a democracy. We need new people with different ideas.”
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David Lightman contributed to this report.
What CPAC Attendees Liked About Jeb Bush
Florida Governor Jeb Bush'sappearanceat CPAC is his first major event in front of conservatives since he started exploring the presidency. It is not comfortable turf – as popular as George W. Bush was with conservatives, he left office with TARP and the Iraq War behind him, and the hard-right and libertarian wings of the GOP have grown in influence. A Bloomberg reporter asked a selection of CPACers an easy question: What do they like about Jeb Bush?
Bev Hartley, Ben Carson volunteer from Colorado
“I really don't want Jeb Bush in there, I'm sorry. Are you working for him?No? Well, we really don't need any more Bushes in there. It's not that I don't like Jeb. I think George was a good president. We just have to do the best we can and Ben Carson is the best.”
“Grizzly Joe,” blogger
“I don't like anything about him because I don't know enough about him. I'm from New York, and I don't get too deep into this stuff. He has a nice last name, though – it's got a familiar ring to it. I'm more focused on counter-jihad than anything else.”
Benji Backer, young Republican
“You know, I think that he can appeal to independents more because he's more moderate, just like Hillary's more moderate. But I don't think that's enough. He's not the front-runner, by the way – he's trailing by a lot.”
Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason
“He's really tall. I rode in an elevator with him once, and he was taller than I was. He's better on immigration than most Republicans, right? I don't know exactly what his policy position is, and whether I'd agree with it, but totally he's much better than most Republicans, more like his brother. He understands educational choice and has done more active work towards that than 99 percent of the people who talk about educational choice. But he's got no chance.”
Eric Golub, conservative comedian
“The best thing about Jeb Bush is that he was a successful governor. I don't judge people based on intentions. I judge them based on results. Jeb is being portrayed as a moderate, but he governed as a conservative.”
Phil Kerpen, president of American Committment
“He had a pretty good record as governor. I find it very difficult to get past his last name and look into any relative merits. First of all, the Bush name makes it very tough to win over the electorate. Second, it's very likely he will bring back all the people we werefighting in his brother's administration. But other than that, I don't think he's particularly objectionable on policy grounds.”
David Keene, former president of the American Conservative Union
“He was a great governor. He's not the most exciting, but his problems – all candidates have problems – is that when he left Tallahassee, he was the conservative former governor of Florida. Now, he's the former conservative governor of Florida. He's emphasized the issues he disagrees with, rather than the record he had.”
Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party presidential candidate
“Well, I got to know him when I was governor. He kind of snubbed the Clinton White House dinner during the winter meeting of the RGA. John Engler, Christie Whitman, Bush and myself would go out with our spouses. He's got to be like the other Bushes, though, in that his alliances are going to be with his brother's organization. If he wins, that's going to be another Bush administration. They're gonna drop bombs.”
Fritz Brogan, restaurant owner
“Well, I grew up in Florida. I just love his conservative record. He cut taxes eight years in a row. He was frankly the most pro-life governor in the country, if you remember the whole Terri Schiavosituation.”
Mary Katherine Ham, author and commentator
“Any time you have a candidate who has executive experience, who has been through the ringer on a couple of things, including pretty rough hurricane situations and dealing with crises – I think that's important experience for a president. The downside's the baggage of the name and how he appeals to the base.”
Carl Paladino, former candidate for New York governor
“He says all the right things, you know? I think a lot of these guys play-act. I don't think they're speaking from the heart. And I don't think that's right. I think that's bullshit.”
Matthew Hurtt, libertarian Republican activist
“I don't know that there is a redeeming quality about Jeb Bush. Well, being a governor – having executive experience is a good thing. But there are other candidates with better experience.”
Judd Saul, filmmaker
“I don't like anything about Jeb Bush. Nothing. Nothing at all. In fact I'm debating whether to stand up in the middle of the speech and call him a wanker.”
Melissa Oritz, blogger
“I like that all of his sentences are grammatically correct. I'm excited to know that he can read a teleprompter.”
Matthew Boyle, reporter for Breitbart News
“I like that he was the e-governor, and that he'd answer emails personally from any average Joe.”
Stacey Lennox and Jason Dombrowski, radio hosts
DOMBROWSKI:“Oh, that's a hard question. Any time anybody mentions Bush on the show, we play a clip of Al Sharpton yelling ‘Stay out the Bushes!'”
LENNOX: “He's got a kind of big government schtick.”
Bobby Jindal, governor Louisiana
“He and I have worked together. Even though we disagree on Common Core, he and I have worked on school choice. He and I did an event in D.C. when the DOJ sued Louisiana to stop school choice – he called out Eric Holder for this ridiculous lawsuit, and he came to Louisiana to support us. Look, in addition to being supportive of what he did in Louisiana, he did many good things in Florida. I do disagree with him on Common Core and the role of the federal government in education.
Judson Phillips, founderof Tea Party Nation
”I can't think of anything that I like about Jeb Bush. He's probably a nice person, but I'm very pro-life and I remember what he did with Terri Schiavo. I think the Schiavo guy was wrong with what he did to his wife, but Bush was very dictatorial in how he handled it. The rule of law is there for a reason.“
David Bossie, president of Citizens United
”We ran for eight years a project called Citizens United for the Bush Agenda. We tried to enhance and forward President George W. Bush's legislative agenda, where it was conservative. Especially on foreign policy. We're not against the Bushes. But I'm frustrated and a little insulted as an American voter that there are 330 million Americans and the Democrats can only come up with someone named Clinton and we're coming up with someone named Bush. I think Jeb Bush has to go out and earn it.“
Rebecca Furdeck and Robin Lehninger, attorneys
FURDECK: I think that his stance on foreign affairs is cited by many as being reasonable. I'm thinking here… I know that he's been well-respected as governor.”
LEHNINGER: “He does have a large base of support already, but he's been framed as so many by the establishment candidate.”
John Hawkins, founder and editor of Right Wing News
“I like that he's not going to win.”
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