ORLANDO — Hispanic leaders gathered at a national conference in Orlando may have given Mitt Romney a lukewarm reception Thursday, but they rose to their feet and cheered former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Bush, addressing the group in both in English and Spanish, struck a decidedly nonpartisan tone as he spoke passionately about the importance of reforming the education system through higher standards, more accountability and school choice.
"This is the great civil right, and you as leaders in your communities need to take a stand and to be strongly supportive of education reform, to move to a child-centered system where children truly have a greater chance of gaining the power of knowledge,'' Bush told members of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
"I hope that you're engaged in this movement," he said. "Whether you're on the school board, a teacher, whether you're a county commissioner, it doesn't matter. This should be the highest priority for mayors, this should be the highest priority for business leaders. This should be (how) America defines itself going forward. And if we get this right, our diversity becomes a strength, our country will prosper, our country will continue to be the greatest on the face of the Earth."
Education reform is one area where Bush often agrees with the Obama administration, and the Republican former governor said he was proud to introduce President Barack Obama last year at a Miami high school.
"I don't know about you, but when we find common ground we shouldn't fight anymore. We should move on and build on that success,'' Bush said. "Apparently one can get in trouble when they say these kinds of things, but I happen to believe it's the American way. There's enough to fight about."
Speaking later to reporters, Bush was considerably less charitable about the president's move last week to halt some deportations.
"It was a purely political move to pre-empt, and that's exactly what the motive was," Bush said. "He's had supermajorities in the House and Senate to fulfill his promise he made in the last campaign, and what we've heard are crickets. I mean, not a single move. And then to do this was a good political move. Bad policy in the sense that it's a stopgap — it creates continued uncertainty for a whole lot of people who don't deserve it."
The popular former governor has criticized some fellow Republicans for harsh rhetoric on immigration, but Thursday he praised Romney's speech before NALEO.
"I heard a consistent message of border control, but I think he expanded it out to talk about reforming the immigration system itself, allowing people to serve in the military to be able to get legal residency; to work with Democrats — which is a new concept — where actually Republicans and Democrats can work together for long-term, comprehensive reform rather than stopgap measures," Bush said.