LAS VEGAS — Likely 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush on Monday held his first campaign-style event with a general audience in 13 years, using a low-key Republican gathering to begin addressing lingering concerns about his potential White House bid.
Since launching his presumptive campaign in December, Bush has hired veteran political operatives and raised millions of dollars from deep-pocketed donors across the country. But he has remained either cloistered behind closed doors with those donors or at gatherings hosted by conservative groups that charge entrance fees.
On Monday, he showed up late after a delayed flight from Miami and spent nearly an hour with about 400 skeptical, mostly older Republicans at a community center. He hadn’t come face to face with voters in such a forum since running for reelection as Florida governor in 2002.
They quizzed him about presidential fast-track trade authority (he’s for it) and sharia law (he’s against it). On foreign policy, Bush said there should be “no daylight” between the United States and Israel and said that if a Republican was president, the U.S. “border would be secure.” Most of all, the crowd seemed eager for him to defend his conservative bona fides and family ties.
“The circumstances in 2016 are dramatically different than they were in 1988,” he said, referring to the year his father, George H.W. Bush, won the presidency. “The world has changed. The circumstances for every time there’s an election are different. So you have to go earn it. I know that there are going to be people who say, ‘Well, why you?’ First of all, I have to show who I am, what’s in my heart, why I care about people and why I care about the mess we’re in. And then the ideas I advocate hopefully will be validated by people that believe them.”
Bush repeatedly touted his record as a governor, saying he had trimmed the size of state government, overhauled Florida’s tax code and social services agencies and banished affirmative action.
Questions about Bush’s conservatism have dogged the early weeks of his campaign-in-waiting, and aides say that he is eager to remind Republican primary voters about his record.
“I’m the most conservative governor in Florida’s history, and I got to act on my core beliefs,” he told reporters after the event.
Monday’s gathering was announced just a few days in advance, designed to get Bush out and about before a closely scrutinized visit this weekend to Iowa, host of the first-in-the-nation caucuses next year. He is also scheduled this month to visit New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Bush was scheduled to hold other private meetings in Las Vegas on Monday, but aides declined to say with whom he was meeting. He is scheduled to give his final paid speech, to the American Council of Life Insurers, in Las Vegas on Tuesday morning, before flying to Arizona for fundraisers, including an event hosted by former vice president Dan Quayle.
Nevada is scheduled to be the third state to hold a primary contest. Mitt Romney handily won the Silver State’s caucus in 2012, an early win that helped give the eventual GOP nominee early momentum. Polling in Nevada is scant so far this cycle, but a survey of about 930 voters released last week by a Republican marketing firm here gave Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker an eight-point edge over Bush.
Nick Phillips, political director for the Clark County Republican Party, which encompasses Las Vegas, said that based on his conversations with local Republicans, Walker and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) are early favorites. “People are kind of tired here of Clintons and Bushes in the White House,” he said in an interview Monday. “But they’re excited about Walker and Paul.”
In his remarks, Bush attacked both President Obama and congressional Republicans for contributing to Washington’s gridlock. He said leadership is “not just about yapping, or talking, or arguing or fighting. It’s about finding ways to forge consensus with people who may not agree with you on everything.”
He also used humor. When a questioner started by asking “Senator Bush?” Bush quickly shot back: “Don’t insult me, I’m a governor!” The crowd roared.
Another man told him, “I voted for your father once and your brother twice.”
“What happened the other time for my father?” Bush asked.
“Well, Ross Perot was there,” the man said.
“And you got Clinton,” Bush deadpanned.
He also seemed eager to allay doubts about his status as the son and brother of controversial presidents. Wrapping up an answer about how he would be different, he asked a questioner, “You have brothers and sisters?”
“Yes,” the person responded.
“Are you exactly the same?” Bush asked him.
“No!” people in the crowd shouted in response.
“Everybody will be a little different,” Bush said later. “My life experience is one that people ought to consider.”