Scott Walker has momentum with conservatives. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have the passion. And Jeb Bush still faces widespread skepticism that’s not going away.
Those were some of the takeaways as thousands of conservatives ended a four-day conference Saturday with fresh takes on potential candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, impressions that will help shape the early stages of the wide-open race.
Thirteen potential candidates each got 20 minutes before the Conservative Political Action Conference. Walker, the Wisconsin governor, got the loudest applause, with Paul, a U.S. senator from Kentucky, and Cruz, a senator from Texas, close behind. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was the grassroots champion, as his T-shirted army seemed to be everywhere.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal stoked considerable curiosity with his detailed prescription for derailing the Common Core educational standards. And former business executive Carly Fiorina got buzz for her lively zingers aimed at likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
None emerged as the clear rising star. Walker came closest. He’s stoked interest because he’s a new face, a 47-year-old just-re-elected governor from a nominally Democratic state who took on labor unions and won.
In one sign of his potential appeal, Walker came in a strong second in a straw poll of activists at the conference.
Paul won it for the third year in a row, followed closely by newcomer Walker, then Cruz, Carson and Bush.
Walker’s appearance at the meeting was tarnished a smidgeon, though, when he appeared to liken union protesters in Wisconsin to terrorists. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters,” he said, “I can do the same across the world.”
Walker nonetheless remained an attractive option to a bloc of activists frustrated that the last two Republican presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, weren’t conservative enough and seemed too tied to the mainstream political establishment.
Barbara Decker, a San Diego retiree, liked Walker and Cruz, explaining, “I’m tired of establishment figures.”
That was Bush’s burden, and will be for some time. He’s not only the candidate piling up big donor money and tapping a network of well-known insiders, he’s the son and brother of presidents.
That bothered a lot of people at the conference. “I’m not a fan of imperial presidencies,” said Travis Murray, a Coast Guard officer from Shorewood, Illinois. “The Founding Fathers never intended to have a hierarchy handing down the presidency to future generations.”
The Bush name also remains a source of conservative wariness. “There’s a lot of Bush fatigue,’’ said David Keene, former American Conservative Union chairman, “and neither his brother or father was seen by many conservative as conservative enough.”
They disliked President George H. W. Bush for agreeing to a tax increase after pledging “no new taxes.” They criticized President George W. Bush for presiding over huge federal deficits in his second term.
Jeb Bush’s supporters said he did what he needed to do at this conference. He flooded the convention hall with supporters when he spoke Friday, making sure cheers drowned out booing for his immigration and education resume.
Those issues will continue to dog Bush. He maintained Common Core, which he supports, is not a federal overreach into a local function, a view not widely shared here. While the standards were developed by governors and education officials, the Obama administration has tied some federal funding to acceptance of the standards.
Bush also reiterated his support for a path to legalization for many immigrants now in this country illegally. To supporters, that’s the kind of stance that will help him he’s the nominee and needs to woo a wider audience.
“He explained himself very well,” said Ed Cowling, a Phoenix public relations executive. “The crowd really seemed to quiet down as he spoke.”
Not in the halls. “No, a thousand times no,” said Nedra Babcock, a Tulsa prison reform advocate, of Bush. Why not? “Common Core.”
The next test for these potential candidates will be pulling away from the pack.
Some made progress down that road. It was hard to walk down a hall without someone trying to slap a “Run Ben Run” sticker somewhere, or offer a “Stand with Rand” button. Walker got positive comments everywhere, notably for fighting the unions. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida got some mention for his explanations of his views, notably how he’s learned a lesson from his initial stand on immigration, which was protested by conservatives.
Others were all but forgotten in the Saturday hall chatter. Few were talking about potentials such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Donald Trump.
Most will appear again next Saturday at the Iowa Ag Forum, where they’ll address rural issues. They’re also quietly competing in the “money primary,” where Bush is expected to wow the political world with a big fundraising take.
The true gauge of who’s up and down will be more subtle and difficult to measure. Activists headed home Saturday with new thoughts and feelings about these candidates, ready to share them with like-minded friends and associates.
Impressions forged here will matter, and that’s why Walker emerged with a slight edge. “He seems real,” said Babcock.