If things never get any worse for Jeb Bush than they did at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, he’s in pretty good shape to make a strong run at the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Bush won only 8.3 percent of the vote in the event’s presidential straw poll. That put him in fifth place in an event that has become the annual high water mark for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whose strong libertarian views play well at the event. But Bush was never expected to do particularly well at CPAC, so a top-five showing wasn’t a major setback.
The former Florida governor was not exactly on friendly ground when he appeared at the annual gathering of conservatives held at National Harbor, on the banks of the Potomac outside Washington. For a day-and-a-half before his speech, for example, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham used her appearances to bash his immigration policy. Playing to the crowd, she even suggested that he run on a joint ticket with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Before his appearance, the Washington Times published a story about the plans of an untold number of attendees to walk out on Bush. By Friday morning, the influential Drudge Report’s splash page had a photo of Bush with a single word: “Walkout?”
Sure enough, there were boos and shouts of “Common Core” when Bush took the stage accompanied by Fox News host Sean Hannity, but they were quickly drowned out by his supporters. (The shouts of “Common Core” were a reference to Bush’s support for the controversial multi-state public school curriculum.)
The former Florida governor hadn’t been on stage long when a large Gadsden flag, the “Don’t Tread on Me” emblem of the Tea Party, appeared above the crowd to Bush’s left, and began moving slowly across the ballroom. Carried by Georgia resident William Temple, a regular at Tea Party events in Revolutionary War garb, the flag attracted dozens of followers, who streamed out of the auditorium as Hannity began talking with Bush
Two things were telling. First, while the participants were noisy – they began chanting “No more Bushes!” outside the ballroom – there weren’t really very many of them. Second, a large percentage of those who left wore bright red shirts with the “Stand with Rand” message of those who back Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, also a GOP presidential contender.
Paul, who has won the previous two CPAC straw polls, is a favorite at CPAC. His libertarian views are attractive to a crowd that skews much younger than the general electorate.
In the hallway outside the ballroom, the marchers were feeling triumphant. Temple held court, surrounded by a gaggle of cameras, while young Rand Paul supporters were eager to share their views.
“We’re a little sick of people trying to pander to us,” said Armand Cortellesso, a 20-something graduate of Johnson & Wales University. He had traveled to CPAC from Rhode Island.
“I think they’re trying to use government to expand their interests, which usually involve expanding military operations around the world, with contracts for developers, contractors, and security firms and of course, with oil companies.”
Another Paul supporter, college student Christopher Nosko of Charlotte, N.C., said, “We don’t need any more Bushes in the White House. We don’t need any more establishment Republicans in the White House.”
Back in the ballroom, Bush was articulating his positions on a number of controversial issues, among them immigration reform. Loud boos were quickly drowned out by the cheering of Bush supporters after Hannity mentioned he supported the plan to give drivers licenses to illegal immigrants and to allow children of illegals to get in-state tuition at Florida’s state-run universities.
Bush stood by both positions. He also drew applause for a strong call to defend the border and reduce the number of people eligible to come to the U.S. because they have a relative here already.
He reiterated a call for some current undocumented immigrants to be offered a path to legal permanent residence. “I know there is some disagreement here. But the simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status, where they work, where they don’t receive government benefits, they don’t break the law, they learn English, and they make a contribution to our society.”
Bush addressed the potential of a partial shutdown of Homeland Security because of a fight over defunding President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. He said, “It makes no sense to me that we’re not funding control of our border, which is the whole argument. I’m missing something.”
By the time Hannity steered Bush to his record as governor of Florida, which included tax cuts, education reforms, spending cuts and more, it felt as though Bush had mostly won the conservative audience over.
Bush’s record as governor was likely news to many attendees who were barely out of kindergarten when Bush was first elected in 1998. They’d only barely finished middle school when he finished his second and final term in 2007.
It may be ironic that a man aiming to be the third consecutive member of his family to occupy the White House should need to introduce himself to voters. But Jeb Bush hasn’t held elective office in eight years, and is more associated with the presidencies of his father, George H.W. Bush, and crucially his brother, George W. Bush, than with his own record.
He took steps to change that on Friday – and judging by the cheers, made a great deal of progress. Outside, in the hallway, Temple, his Gadsden flag, and the gaggle of Rand Paul supporters were all long gone.
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