PALM BEACH, Fla. — As Jeb Bush tells it, he governed this state as “a practicing reform-minded conservative.” He cut taxes here by $19 billion. He slashed the state government payroll. He battled teachers unions to overhaul education. He ended affirmative action. And he vetoed so many spending bills that he earned the nickname “Veto Corleone.”
“I got to be governor of this state — this purple state, this wacky, wonderful state — for eight years. I ran as a conservative, I said what I was going to do, and I had a chance to do it. And trust me, I did,” Bush crowed to fiscally conservative members of the Club for Growth gathered here last week.
Bush is making his two terms as governor the core argument of his push to try to persuade conservatives that he’s one of them.
But Bush is embarking on his likely campaign for president in an environment very different from the one he governed between 1999 and 2007. Back then, being conservative on most things was enough. Today, purity is in, and many conservatives require their leaders — whether in Congress or on the campaign trail — to be in lock step on everything.
That presents a particular problem for Bush, who is out of synch on two issues that have emerged as litmus tests: immigration and the Common Core education standards. Another challenge is that he’s a Bush. Some activists on the right still harbor bad feelings about his father and brother, both of whom were elected president after running as true conservatives but disappointed the base once they won.
“Jeb Bush is quite conservative, but he’s being talked about as if he weren’t,” said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “People are going to find out he’s even more conservative than his brother, particularly on free enterprise issues.”
Bush famously said late last year that he was willing to “lose the primary to win the general,” meaning he would not pander to the base of his party in a way that would have him limping into the general election as GOP nominee Mitt Romney had in 2012.
But Bush showed last week that he also wants to win the primary and has begun trumpeting his Florida record to build a case that he was — and still is — a champion of conservatism. He has been sending other signals, too, such as talking about his renewed faith in the Constitution and calling for the elimination of the Export-Import bank.
In private huddles with influential movement leaders and public appearances such as the hotly anticipated one he made Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bush has been arguing that Florida is a model for how he would lead the nation. Bush’s advisers and allies are making a concerted outreach to, as one put it, “assure them of his authenticity.”
Bush personally delivered that message last week to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and to Erick Erickson, founder of the Web site Red State. Both have been cool to a Bush candidacy, though Erickson said he came away from his meeting “impressed with [Bush’s] recognition of the hurdles ahead for him.”
Bush also met with Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband, Saeed, is a Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran. His release has become a cause célèbre for the religious right.
In public, Bush is trying to demonstrate grass-roots momentum. At CPAC, an annual conclave of conservative activists that is held outside of Washington in Maryland, Bush rallied a few hundred supporters in a side room following his official appearance. He took the stage to the theme song from “Rocky” and later joined the crowd, his suit jacket removed, to take photos and shake hands with fans.
“This is the definition of gridlock,” Bush marveled as the crowd swarmed him. The scene was a stark contrast to his 2013 appearance at CPAC when he gave a flat and preaching speech and barely mingled with attendees.
Bush is expected to continue touting his gubernatorial record in retail-style campaign swings this week in Nevada and Iowa and later this month in New Hampshire and South Carolina, all of which are early voting states. Aides suggested that Bush may also use his budding social media presence to highlight the same.
Bush says he wants to spread the gospel of conservatism beyond the party’s core base — to Latinos, young people and other constituencies with whom the GOP has been out of favor. As he told supporters at CPAC, “There are a lot of conservatives that are out there in America, they just don’t know it yet.”
Brooks, who stays in close contact with Bush via e-mail and phone, said he has counseled the likely candidate: “This is the moment to create a new right. It’s an incredible opportunity, the best in my lifetime, to create a new right that’s extremely humanistic, that’s pro-poor and talks about the values of equal opportunity.”
But with his aggressive and early lead raising money and locking up establishment support, Bush risks becoming a pariah on the right. David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group, said he wonders whether Bush “can speak to conservatives rather than at them.”
“I have not seen Jeb Bush do much yet to educate conservatives on how he’s a full-spectrum conservative,” he said.
John Brabender, an adviser to former Republican senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a likely Bush rival, said Bush’s record as governor will carry him only so far.
“For Republican primary voters, a big part of it is, ‘What have you done for me lately, and what are you talking about now?’ ” Brabender said. “Historical records are proof of being a core conservative, and it offers you credibility — but they aren’t everything.”
Those who worked with Bush when he was governor said there was no question as to his core ideology. In 1994, when Bush first ran for governor, he was challenged in a primary from the right by Ken Connor, who thought that the Bush family heir would be insufficiently conservative. Bush won the primary but not the general election. Four years later, after Bush took office, Connor changed his mind.
“Jeb is a solid conservative of deep conviction,” Connor said in a recent interview. “I think he’s an authentic conservative.”
Connor, who has served as national president of the Family Research Council and is now chairman of the Center for a Just Society, has been conferring with Bush’s political team about offering testimonies of Bush’s conservatism.
Bush appointed Connor to represent the state in the Terri Schiavo case, and Connor said Bush’s decision to prohibit the removal of a feeding tube from Schiavo was an example of his conservative instincts.
“The most persuasive thing, in terms of authenticating his conservative bona fides to other conservatives, is his record,” Connor said.
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said it would be unfair for conservatives to group Bush with Romney or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee. “If they think that’s who he is, they’re wrong,” he said.
But Stemberger said that he and other conservatives are concerned about Bush’s positions on social issues, in particular same-sex marriage. Although Bush backs traditional marriage, he has said people should accept court rulings that legalize same-sex marriage and “show respect” for those in committed same-sex relationships.
“He’s really going to struggle with capturing the imaginations of social conservatives,” Stemberger said. “We want someone who can articulate why family structure is so important to the survival of our civilization and not backpedal and say, ‘We have to be careful how we talk about this.’ ”
One example of how Bush is trying to use his Florida experience to harden his otherwise moderate impression is on education. At CPAC, he sought to widen the conversation about education beyond the heavily debated Common Core standards to include more conservative-minded reforms he enacted in Florida, such as expanding charter schools and creating the first statewide program of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.
Bush bragged about having eliminated affirmative action in Florida for college admissions and state contracting. And he is taking new stances on relatively small-bore issues to make a symbolic statement about his ideology.
For example, Bush called for the elimination of the Export-Import Bank, a government entity that lends money to U.S. companies doing business overseas, in his appearance at the Club for Growth meeting in Palm Beach on Thursday. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and business leaders support the bank, but Bush sided with conservative reformers, including the Club for Growth, who see it as an unfair federal subsidy.
Michael A. Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action for America, said he was “ecstatic” to see Bush come out against the bank. “I think he needs to address the perception people have that he’s maybe a little too tight with the business community and the favoritism culture of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
After Club for Growth President David McIntosh moderated a question-and-answer session with Bush in Palm Beach, McIntosh said attendees came away thinking that Bush would run for president as “the old, firebrand Jeb Bush” rather than the perceived moderate of late.
An important dog-whistle to conservatives, McIntosh said, was Bush’s statement here and at CPAC about how he recently “fell in love with the Constitution again” while serving as chairman of the National Constitution Center museum in Philadelphia.
“If Jeb Bush has renewed inspiration by the Constitution, from that flows limited government in economics, flows limited government in other areas, flows a demand for strong national defense,” McIntosh said. “Folks at the club, other conservative groups probably as well, will understand that as a significant indication of how he’d be president.”
Costa and Helderman reported from Washington. Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.