CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Jeb Bush was confronted this weekend at a sports bar by young activists who interrogated him in Spanish about immigration reform — an exchange they caught on camera. He also shared a meal with Chinese exchange students.
But he was mostly in hot pursuit of people such as Joni Scotter, a key GOP activist who helped Mitt Romney four years ago.
“I love you,” Bush said, pointing at Scotter after walking into the back room at the Pizza Ranch restaurant.
“I loved every bit of the speech, and his point of view is just like the same way I think,” Scotter said after Bush gave a talk.
Does that mean she’s supporting Bush?
“Yes, of course she is,” Bush interjected after hearing the question.
Scotter turned around and smiled. “Let me give you a hug, sir.”
“You want a hug? I can do that for you,” he said. “I’m from Miami; we do a lot of huggin’.”
He’s not an official candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but Bush spent this weekend acting like one at events across Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucus early next year. His Iowa campaign-in-waiting is beginning to resemble the operation built by Romney in 2012 that resulted in a second-place caucus finish on his way to the GOP nomination.
The goal for the weekend, aides said, was to get the former Florida governor in front of diverse groups of people representing a cross-section of Iowans across the state. That meant stopping at a Republican fundraiser in Urbandale, an agriculture event near Des Moines, a sports bar in Waukee and the Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids.
Bush also scheduled private meetings with Republican leaders and operatives who previously helped his father, his brother and Romney.
At Bush’s side throughout was David Kochel, a veteran Iowa-based Republican operative who probably will become his national campaign manager. Bush has also hired Annie Kelly, who helped Republicans win a competitive House race here in 2012 and will serve as the Bush campaign’s state director.
It was Bush’s first trip to Iowa since October 2012. At the Pizza Ranch on Saturday, he walked into a tiny back room packed with at least 80 people. He stood in front of wooden slabs inscribed with the words of the Pledge of Allegiance and another that read “Happy Trails to You.” A cross was perched on a shelf over his head.
“I learned a lot about politics as a youngster campaigning for my dad,” he told the room. “I learned how to make mistakes — I learned how to be humiliated in public and all the things that people aspiring to public life learn to do. It was a joy, and people in Iowa treated all of the Bush family so well. It’s good to be back.”
Bush arrived in Iowa on Friday evening to appear at a fundraiser for Rep. David Young (R-Iowa), a Des Moines-area congressman. Bush used the appearance to sharply criticize President Obama’s foreign policy leadership.
Obama, he said, is “the first president since World War II who does not believe that American power is a force for good” in the world. The president’s approach has brought “uncertainty, instability and greater risk” to the nation, Bush said.
On Saturday morning, Bush appeared at the Ag Summit — a first-of-its-kind forum hosted by Bruce Rastetter, a successful agribusiness executive and wealthy GOP donor. Taking questions on a wide range of issues, Bush called the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, a “monstrosity” and the Environmental Protection Agency “a pig in slop.” He gave mostly wonky answers, but an exchange on country-of-origin food labeling revealed more about his life in Florida. He said that he likes the informational labels and that he planned to shop at a Publix supermarket in Coral Gables, Fla., on Sunday for “Iowa beef.”
“I’ll probably make a really good guacamole, and I want to know where that avocado is from,” he added. “I want to know where the onions are from and the cilantro.”
Bush pronounced the food products as “gua-ka-MOH-lay” and “see-LAHN-troh” — signs of a well-trained Spanish speaker.
Bush had to use his Spanish skills later when immigration activists confronted him in Waukee, crashing what was supposed to be an invitation-only event for potential campaign staffers and volunteers. Black window shades were used to keep away gawkers and improve lighting for videographers, presumably for future television advertisements.
Volunteers, apparently fearful of alienating potential caucusgoers, let the immigration activists in. Seen on video shot by a cellphone camera, a woman asked Bush in Spanish whether he would repeal Obama’s recent executive actions, including the temporary legal status granted to hundreds of thousands of children of illegal immigrants.
Bush responded in Spanish that “we need to give priority to make them citizens. But by law, not by decree — that’s like a Latin American dictator.”
When reporters questioned him later in Cedar Rapids about the exchange, Bush would say only that “we need to change the law. That’s exactly what I said this afternoon. We need to do this by law, not by executive order.”
At the sports bar in Waukee, Bush had lunch with Chinese exchange students brought to Iowa as part of a long-running program in the Des Moines area. He also greeted customers at one table and told them about his “paleo” diet. Motioning to barbecue at one table, he explained that “I can eat the meat, just not the sauce. Enjoy it.”
Jeff and Michelle Overton of Waukee showed up to see Bush after hearing on the radio about his visit.
“He’s the front-runner,” Michelle Overton said. “I’m not sure I want another Bush in office, but I’d be interested in what he has to say.”
Jeff Overton said that Bush appears to “carry his own agenda from his brother and his dad. He’s rumored to have a more liberal approach to things. I haven’t heard that come out of him.”
Jeff Janssen, 27, a Drake University law school student and lobbyist, said he was invited to a meeting with Bush after helping in the election of Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) last year.
“It was great to speak with him,” Janssen said. “I think if he can separate himself from his brother and get the word out about his conservative principles, it’ll help him.”
Some customers didn’t seem prepared to deal with the resumption of national politicking in their state and were more interested in the college basketball game between Iowa and Northwestern. (The Hawkeyes won by 17 points.)
“Who are these people in my bar today?” a customer asked the bartender before Bush showed up.
“Jeb Bush is here,” she told the man. “He’s one of the old guys back there.”
Dan Balz in Urbandale, Iowa, contributed to this report.