Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has declined an invitation to speak at an Iowa gathering hosted by an immigration hard-liner.

Bush’s decision to bypass the Iowa Freedom Summit, slated for Jan. 24, was confirmed by his office and by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the event’s organizer, who has sparked controversy for his comments about illegal immigrants.

A Bush aide said he appreciated the invitation but would be unable to make it.

King, in an interview, said Bush responded to the invitation through an adviser. He also said he has not yet spoken with Bush, who announced earlier this month that he is exploring a 2016 run for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I got a message a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t work out,” King said. “I’m sorry about that. I wish he could make it.”

Bush’s absence from King’s stage is a departure from the rest of the emerging Republican field, where many hopefuls have already privately reached out to King in an attempt to cultivate their relationship with the congressman, who is considered a conservative power broker.

Potential GOP presidential contenders scheduled to appear include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Donald Trump, and tea-party favorite Ben Carson, a Maryland neurosurgeon.

In October, Christie headlined a fundraiser for King in the lawmaker’s district. According to a report at NJ.com, Christie said, “I will be a supporter of Steve King for as long as he continues to be in public life.”

King, who is an influential member of the House GOP’s conservative bloc, is best known for forcefully opposing efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. In 2013, he made headlines when he said some illegal immigrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

When asked whether he believes Bush is avoiding him for political reasons, King would not speculate on why Bush would not attend.

“I want all of the possible candidates to come to Iowa and make their pitch,” King said. “They should all come and speak to activists and interact with conservatives. I hope he finds a chance to do so.”

King added, “The governor’s brother [former president George W. Bush] worked the caucuses pretty hard. I think he set a good example of how you should campaign in Iowa.”

George W. Bush won the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2000 on his way to winning the GOP nomination. His father, George H.W. Bush, won the Iowa Republican caucuses in the opening stage of 1980 presidential campaign, but lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan before being tapped as the party’s vice-presidential nominee.

Citizens United, a group that produces films and supports various conservative causes, is co-sponsoring the daylong conference, which will be held in a hotel ballroom in Des Moines.

In interviews earlier this month, several Republicans said Bush could compete in Iowa, in spite of the state’s drift to the right in some quarters, particularly in western Iowa, which has been represented by King for over a decade.

“People underestimate the potential of a candidate like Jeb in Iowa,” GOP consultant David Kochel said. “There is a big lane for a thoughtful conservative who has been a successful governor. He’s got to make his case, but he could do it.”

Gov. Terry Branstad (R-Iowa) has also been encouraging. “It’s wrong to pigeonhole Iowa voters and say they’d necessarily go for this brand of candidate or that brand of candidate,” he said.

Steve Deace, a firebrand talk-radio personality, however, said Bush, who is known for his pragmatic streak and uneasiness with combative political rhetoric, would face challenges. He cited Bush’s support of a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and his support of Common Core, a program of national education standards, as hurdles.

“Bush is a pure Washington fantasy,” Deace said. “Conservatives in the rest of the country are not going to buy it.”

A CNN nationwide poll of Republicans, released Monday, shows Bush ahead of his potential competitors, with 23 percent support. Christie followed at 13 percent, and Carson was third with 7 percent.