By Michael A. Memoli and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Jeb Bush defended his credentials as a “reform-minded conservative” Friday, even as he held firm to positions that threaten to undermine his standing with party activists, telling skeptics at the Conservative Political Action Conference he hoped to be their “second choice.”
During a question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity before a packed ballroom at the annual gathering of conservative activists, the former Florida governor acknowledged that many are suspicious of his potential candidacy. He emphasized that Republicans need to appeal to a broader audience of people who could become supporters.
“There are a lot of other conservatives that haven’t been asked. They 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,” he said.
The crowd’s doubts about Bush were evident early. When Hannity conducted an informal audience poll of potential 2016 candidates, Bush’s name provoked a chorus of boos.
Hours before his speech, Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host, launched a broadside against the son and brother of former presidents, saying he would be better off running on a ticket with Hillary Clinton than leading the Republican ticket against her.
Questioning Bush, Hannity asked about the gap between him and many conservatives, particularly on immigration and education policy.
“I read about it,” Bush quipped.
Speaking at a rapid-fire pace, Bush offered quick and practiced answers on most of the topics that have complicated his relationships with conservatives.
On immigration, he reiterated his support for some kind of path to legal status for those who have come to the U.S. illegally, saying 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, where they learn English and they make a contribution to our society,” he said.
But Bush also said he opposed President Barack Obama’s recent executive actions that would shield up to 5million from deportation. He supported a congressional effort to try to block the policy, he said, but not if doing so risked funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
“I’m not an expert on the ways of Washington. It makes no sense to me that we’re not funding control of our border, which is the whole argument,” he said.
He stood by his support for granting driver’s licenses and in-state tuition to some immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The latter, he noted, was enacted in Florida just last year “by one of the most conservative state legislatures, I might add, and a conservative governor … Not by me.”
Bush also defended his support for education standards known as the Common Core, saying he supported the idea of set standards but suggesting he was aligned with conservatives on his opposition to involvement by the federal involvement.
The Obama administration has meddled in the process with its “Race to the Top” program that ties school money to achievement on standardized tests, Bush said.
“The federal government has no role in the creation of standards either directly or indirectly,” he said. “The role of the federal government, if there is any, is to provide incentives for more school choice.”
Bush also denied reports that he may be shifting his opposition to same-sex marriage as he courts gay donors.
“No, I believe in traditional marriage,” he said.
He won cheers by declaring he opposes legalizing marijuana but believes “states ought to have that right to do it.”
The two-day conference, at a hotel just outside Washington, D.C., featured an opening-day lineup heavy with first-time national candidates eager to make a strong impression and a Friday agenda that revealed the potential challenge, and opportunity, of the ideological diversity in the party.
Before Bush spoke, “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson was on stage delivering a meandering speech that went beyond his allotted time. Earlier, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (R-KY), defended his vision of a more limited foreign policy only to be followed immediately by Rick Santorum’s push for a more aggressively military response to the militants of the Islamic State.
On the schedule in between was Donald Trump advocating, well, Donald Trump.
But speeches by Bush and Paul best captured the choice between establishment favorite and a grassroots-backed wild card.
Paul has traditionally thrived with the CPAC audience — he won the 2014 presidential preference straw poll — and again drew the most enthusiastic reaction here.
His afternoon speech, delayed by votes in the Senate, was grounded in libertarian principles. He said conservatives’ support for limited government at home should inform their foreign policy, too.
“Conservatives should not succumb to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow succeed abroad, that a government that can’t even deliver the mail will somehow be able to create nations abroad,” the Kentucky Republican declared.
His view of national defense — “unparalleled, undefeatable and unencumbered by nation-building” — was an extension of Ronald Reagan’s advocacy of “peace through strength,” he said.
At home, Paul said his travels to communities often ignored by the GOP, including Detroit and Ferguson, Mo., have shown him that “liberal policies have failed.”
“Those of us who have enjoyed the American dream must break down a wall that separates us from the other America,” he said, before promising to “cut everyone’s taxes, from richest to poorest.”
CPAC has long attracted Republican White House hopefuls eager to make a splash before a conservative audience. But this year, the American Conservative Union, the event’s organizer, has done more to present it as a presidential audition.
Rather than just allow would-be candidates to deliver a red-meat speech, the group has required candidates to follow their opening remarks with a question-and-answer session. Conservative media figures including Ingraham and Hannity have led the questioning.
Last year, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), delivered a stern speech to CPAC focused almost singularly on foreign policy. In his opening remarks this time, Rubio again hewed to his message about the importance of American leadership on the world stage. He silenced the crowd with an emotional, personal pitch.
“This is deeply personal,” he said. “America doesn’t owe me anything. But I have a debt to America that I will never be able to repay.”
Then, however, he sat with Hannity, who peppered him with questions about more politically difficult parts of his record, particularly immigration. Rubio’s support for a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 is extremely unpopular with many conservatives.
Rubio said the lesson he has learned in the two years since he helped write that legislation was that you can’t discuss pathways to citizenship until Americans believe “that future illegal immigration will be controlled.”
Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the changes to the format are about giving conservative activists “the best experience they can get.”
“We’re trying to bring the stage out among them to make it less imposing, to make it easier to interact with the speakers and make the speakers interact with them,” he said.
“The prospects for conservatives to be successful in 2016 are incredibly high,” he added. “And conservatives have a chance to make sure that a conservative nominee is the standard bearer.”
Former Governor Jeb Bush speaks at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Feb. 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Md. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)