1. Florida Politics

Jeb Bush faces the heat at CPAC and stands ground

Published Feb. 28, 2015

OXON Hill, Md. — Jeb Bush walked into a hostile swarm of conservative activists here Friday but, backed by scores of supporters who often drowned out boos with cheers, stood his ground on immigration and Common Core while touting his time as governor.

"It's a record of accomplishment, of getting things done," Bush said, standing on stage with moderator Sean Hannity at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Responding to hecklers, Bush joked that he considered them neutral but said he hoped to be their "second choice," an acknowledgement that he won't win over the most ardent conservatives.

As uncomfortable as he seemed initially, Bush likely left pleased, showing he could face the heat. The forum, with dozens of reporters looking on, gave him the opportunity to address the issues that have dogged him as he considers a presidential run. Talk of a massive walkout never materialized, though animosity pulsed through the crowd.

Bush tried to appeal to the base, blasting President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration and foreign policy. He said he had no regrets about his role in the Terri Schiavo saga, asserting he stayed within the law even as the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law he pursued to keep her on life support.

Asked what his first action would be as president, Bush, 62, said he would undo Obama's executive actions.

Hannity lingered on immigration and Common Core. Bush stood by his calls for immigration reform but scolded critics to learn his position, which also calls for tougher border security. He did not back down from his support as governor for drivers' licenses or in-state tuition for undocumented residents, the latter finally approved under Gov. Rick Scott, who Bush noted is no moderate.

"I know there's disagreement," Bush said. "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 get government benefits, where they learn English, and they make a contribution to our society."

On the Common Core standards, Bush was more nuanced. He did not disavow support but bemoaned federal involvement. The Obama administration used Race to the Top grant money to incentivize states to adopt the standards, which were not created at the federal level.

The forum gave Bush an opportunity to talk about his eight-year tenure as Florida governor and he ticked off items from ending affirmative action to slashing the budget. "They called me Veto Corleone," he said.

As he did during a speech here in 2013, Bush said the GOP has to offer an agenda other than simply trying to oppose the president. "We need to start being for things again," he said, while echoing calls to appeal to a wider base of voters, including Hispanics and young people.

The annual CPAC gathering draws thousands of the most avid conservatives and in recent years it has been dominated by younger libertarian-leaning Republicans, who earlier Friday loudly backed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. It appeared Bush, whose red-hot fundraising has emphasized his ties to the party elite, was in for a rough time. Laura Ingraham, the radio host, mocked the spending habits of Bush's wife, Columba, and said Bush should run with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But Bush came prepared. His supporters bused in hundreds of people, many of them college students at Georgetown and George Washington University. Wearing red "Jeb! '16" stickers, they streamed into the expansive hall and competed loudly with Bush's detractors, often overpowering the boos.

Afterward Bush went into a separate room and was mobbed by hundreds of young activists.

"That was raucous and wild and I loved it," Bush told the group. Upbeat and noticeably trim, he posed for cellphone selfies.

"I wasn't a real big fan until I heard him speak. He really surprised me, especially his answer on immigration. We can't just send 11 million people way," said Chris Pierce, chairman of the University of Cincinnati College Republicans, who attended the Bush reception.

He added that Bush isn't his top pick — that goes to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin — "but he brought me into the maybe camp. I think that was what he was looking to do today, is bring a lot of people into the maybes."

Matt Lynch, 63, of Ohio agreed Bush had done a good job but said his problems with conservatives will persist. "It was pretty orchestrated," he said of the questions.

"I don't think the American people believe that of a nation of 300 million, there are only two families that can produce a presidential candidate. I think that's a big problem for Jeb Bush."

Earlier, Sen. Marco Rubio took another step toward erasing the damage of his role in immigration reform, receiving a warm reception while suggesting the comprehensive approach he once championed was a mistake.

Rubio, who has been walking back his role in helping write the 2013 Senate bill, was aided by criticism of President Obama's executive action to protect millions of undocumented residents from deportation, getting applause for blasting it as an abuse of constitutional authority.

But when pressed on the issue, the Florida Republican said: "It's a serious problem" that needs to be dealt with.

Rubio played up a border security first approach, saying the American public won't trust additional reforms until they see more security.

Then, he said, there could be a "reasonable conversation," about the rest, glossing over the contentious issue of the millions of people living here illegally. (They can't be rounded up and deported, he told a questioner last week in New Hampshire.)

Introduced by Hannity as a "great tea party conservative," Rubio worked in a crowd-pleasing hit on Common Core, saying the country does not need a national school board. He blasted an "Obama-Clinton" foreign policy he said means "enemies no longer fear us." He called for an aggressive approach to wipe out the Islamic State.

At the end, Hannity asked Rubio a series of quick questions. Colorado pot? Against legalization, Rubio replied, differing from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said that he disagrees with weed but that states should decide.

Hillary Clinton? "Yesterday."

Barack Obama? "Failed."

Hannity asked Rubio about running for president and Rubio deflected with his standard line about trying to find the best place to serve the country. He offered the crowd his emotional homage to his Cuban immigrant parents.

"America doesn't owe me anything," Rubio said. "But I have a debt to America that I will never be able to pay."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.