Jeb Bush working to reassert conservative credentials
OXON HILL, Maryland (AP) — Jeb Bush is appearing at a major meeting of conservatives on Friday, trying to convince the right wing of the Republican Party that he’s not too much of a moderate as he moves toward a run for U.S. president.
Bush, the son and brother of presidents, was among the most conservative governors when he served as Florida’s chief executive. But some conservatives view him as a squishy moderate because of his positions on immigration and education standards.
For that reason, perhaps none of the likely 2016 candidates for president has more to gain this week than Bush at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual conference of U.S. conservative activists.
“The challenge for him is this isn’t about yesterday, it’s about tomorrow,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. “The key is, what will he do if he’s president of the United States, and does he have a message that will appeal to conservatives?”
Candidates seeking their parties’ nominations for president often have to prove their ideological credentials to win over core supporters. If they get the nomination, they then frequently pivot toward the center to win over mainstream voters.
Bush is receiving the most attention in the Republican race. On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton has a commanding lead over other potential candidates, according to polls.
Bush speaks at CPAC on Friday, and amid his aggressive fundraising efforts nationwide, his team and key backers are also taking steps to remind the party of his history as a conservative in office.
Aides say that while in office from 1999 to 2007, Bush was among the first state executives to take on teachers unions, lowered taxes each year and signed Florida’s “stand your ground” gun law. He was a hero among social conservatives for his actions to keep Michael Schiavo from removing the feeding tube from his brain-damaged wife, Terri.
In an impassioned speech Thursday to an influential anti-tax group, Bush talked about eight years of tax cuts and economic growth during his time as Florida governor, and said it could be done nationally.
“It’s easy to talk about it,” he told more than 200 economic conservatives at the Club for Growth’s annual winter meeting at a resort in south Florida. “I hope you believe that you want someone who has the proven leadership skills to make it happen.”
Criticism from conservatives centers almost entirely on Bush’s support for Common Core education standards and an immigration policy that would create a path to citizenship for people living in the country illegally, in addition to lingering resentment over the rise in government spending during brother George W. Bush’s administration.
Skeptics were reminded of their misgivings late last year, when Bush said a Republican might need to “lose the primary to win the general,” viewed by some as a swipe at the heavy influence of conservatives in picking the party’s White House nominee.
Just four in 10 self-identified conservatives and tea party supporters rated Bush favorably in an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month. There was evidence, too, of anti-Bush sentiment in the crowded hotel lobbies Thursday as thousands of activists gathered for CPAC.
“I have not seen a single Jeb Bush button here,” said Neil McGettigan, 25, of New Jersey. “Honestly, I think the media’s more excited about him than anyone here.”