The last time Jeb Bush spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he delivered blunt talk — an unwelcome lecture, in the view of many — about the problems with the Republican Party.
“All too often we’re associated with being ‘anti’ everything,” Bush said in 2013. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on.”
Bush will return to the conservative gathering Friday as one of his party’s leading possible presidential candidates — but one who still needs to find the right way to connect with the conservative activists who have not joined establishment donors in an early rush to back him.
At CPAC, conservatives will be looking for Bush to ease their concerns about his stances on education, immigration and taxes. They will want to be reassured that he wouldn’t be like his father or brother, whose presidencies disappointed them. And they are eager to see whether he would be comfortable as a champion of their cause.
The timing is critical for Bush, 62, whose all-but-certain candidacy has attracted legions of financiers and supporters this winter. Despite his fast start, Bush is not outpacing the rest of the GOP field, and some potential rivals — particularly Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — are gaining traction among conservatives as they begin to travel and raise money ahead of the nominating contest.
Walker is beloved among conservatives for his aggressive approach in blue Wisconsin. Many have rallied around him in recent weeks as he has refused to answer questions from the media about evolution and whether President Obama is a Christian.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Walker leading among Republicans in Iowa, with Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee all placing ahead of Bush.
Rather than mingling with friendly donors at receptions, as Bush has for the past couple of months, he will be asked Friday to address students and conservative hard-liners who have been known to boo speakers associated with the Republican Party’s elite.
“You give him credit for facing his critics and getting out of the bubble of fundraisers and policy speeches,” said Kellyanne Conway, who is managing CPAC’s straw poll. “I don’t think he’s necessarily entering hostile territory, but it’s a less natural habitat for him.”
Carefully watching will be handicappers in the Republican donor and consultant communities who will measure just how far Bush goes to ingratiate himself with conservatives, and whether he is still willing, as he said months ago, to “lose the primary to win the general.”
“A lot of the more centrist speakers are going to face some pretty tough questions,” said Brett O’Donnell, one of the GOP’s top debate coaches. “But folks who consider themselves introverts usually are more comfortable and perform better when they’re carrying on a conversation with the crowd.”
To try to give himself an edge, Bush has decided against giving a conventional speech from a lectern, a format that has produced slightly rushed and bland presentations from him in recent weeks.
Instead, he will field questions and engage with the audience in a 20-minute session that is shaping up to be part “Charlie Rose,” part Rush Limbaugh and part town-hall meeting. Sean Hannity, the Fox News personality, will moderate the discussion.
Conservative leaders and GOP power brokers say Bush’s stop presents him with a powerful platform to directly address his skeptics.
“If you could turn political season into baseball season, people starting their political-action committees would be spring training and CPAC would be opening day,” said Peter G. Flaherty, who was an adviser to former presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“I think it’s smart,” Flaherty said of Bush’s decision to forgo a lectern and take questions. “Everybody does well when you play to your strengths.”
Still, hurdles loom. At CPAC in 2012, Romney stumbled when he described himself as a “severely conservative Republican governor” in his speech — a comment that was derided as an overly earnest attempt to win over conservatives who were leery of him.
Bush allies say he has a dual mission: gently shifting rightward his not-yet-calcified persona by walking the party’s base through his views; and sparking a connection by speaking vividly about his record in Florida on social and economic issues.
“This is the first time Jeb’s at CPAC as a potential national candidate. He hasn’t been in elected office in almost 10 years. He needs to reintroduce himself to the conservative base,” Bush confidant Ana Navarro wrote in an e-mail. “Many of them are not familiar with or have forgotten his record. He needs to offer a refresher course.”
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said he thinks it is unfair to group Bush with other moderate Republicans, but Stemberger acknowledged that conservatives with whom he works continue to have suspicions about Bush.
“A lot of people are comparing Jeb Bush to Mitt Romney or to John McCain and Bob Dole. He’s not in that category at all. If they think that’s who he is, they’re wrong. He’s in another class. He is a principled conservative who is also a pragmatist,” Stemberger said.
Perhaps an even more important task, many Bush associates privately say, will simply be to escape CPAC without angering conservatives. Multitudes on the right are already wary of Bush’s support for bipartisan immigration reform, his refusal to take an anti-tax pledge, and his enthusiasm for Common Core, a national education curriculum that tea party leaders vehemently oppose.
Reiterating that he is his “own man,” as Bush did in a speech last week in Chicago on foreign affairs, is another priority, especially at a conclave of conservatives who soured on his father, George H.W. Bush, and brother George W. Bush, and are fatigued by the prospect of nominating another member of the family.
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said: “Dad said he’d never raise taxes and did. Unlike his brother, Jeb has declined to take the pledge and done little to make conservatives confident he wouldn’t. I find that approach oddly aristocratic. He’ll have to explain himself.”
Bush, who on Thursday will speak at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., for a donor conference held by the Club for Growth, also will be assessed as a retail politician, with CPAC attendees monitoring his willingness to shake hands and schmooze with rank-and-file conservatives before and after his appearance.
Working the hallways at CPAC has become a rite of passage for politicians looking to bolster their national profiles. How Bush navigates the autograph requests, talk-radio invitations and hovering television cameras will be a test for a man who has spoken repeatedly about his desire to run “joyfully” amid the “vortex” of modern politics.
CPAC, now a four-day event, has been a long-standing policy forum and annual celebration for conservatives. It opened Wednesday afternoon with boot camps for people interested in becoming political organizers.
Blending aspects of a party convention, a College Republican mixer, and a trade show for conservative media companies and advocacy groups, CPAC has slowly gained political capital in Republican circles since Ronald Reagan began appearing there before smaller crowds in the 1970s.
Friday’s symposium with Bush will be held in a cavernous ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on the lip of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County. He’ll take the stage shortly after separate appearances by crowd favorites Donald Trump — who said Wednesday that he is serious about a potential presidential run — and Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.
Also slated to appear at the conference are Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Paul; Carson; Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Walker, as well as other contenders considering campaigns for the White House.
Daniel Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the confab, said Bush will speak from a stage that is “only two feet off the ground and designed to no longer look like you’re listening to an imperial dictator” — a break from CPAC’s recent custom of having a huge stage and beaming spotlights.
“CPAC was originally designed to be a grass-roots conference of conservatives, and it still is,” he said. “We’re getting back to that by making speakers get up close and personal with attendees.”
Being able to feel the heat of the youthful and packed-in crowd may ultimately be to Bush’s benefit, Norquist said. He predicted the setting would force Bush to deal with voters who are not hurrying to embrace him in the same way prominent GOP donors do at fundraisers.
“When Jeb spoke at CPAC in 2013 over dinner, it was flat, and he opened high up on stage chastising the audience for talking over the introduction,” he said. “It was like he didn’t want to be there — and it showed.”