Jeb Bush Survives CPAC. But Does He Have a Conservative Media Problem?

The former Florida governor got past the early boos. But there could be more to come.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks on stage with conservative political commentator Sean Hannity at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, on February 27, 2015.
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Feb. 27, 2015, 10:30 a.m.

NATIONAL HARBOR — Jeb Bush survived his first face-to-face encounter with the GOP grassroots base of the 2016 not-yet campaign, as he tried to sell his record as a conservative governor in Florida to a questioning crowd Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Bush skipped the chance to deliver a speech here and instead subjected himself to a 25-minute question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity. Hannity was certainly aggressive. For a sizable chunk of the time, he focused on elements of Bush’s agenda that are most toxic to the GOP base: comprehensive immigration reform and the Common Core educational standards.

Hannity eventually asked how Bush defines himself as a Republican. “I would describe myself as a practicing, reform-minded conservative,” Bush replied.

The tough questioning Bush received is perhaps a sign of the troubles he will face not just with the grassroots base, but the conservative media outlets and personalities that amplify and echo those voices at CPAC and beyond. Moments after Bush took the stage, one unidentified person in the press section (which, at CPAC, is filled with conservative writers) jumped up and shouted, “You suck!”

On stage, Hannity soon was reading back to Bush his old quote that illegal immigration is an “act of love” and brought up Bush’s backing of drivers’ licenses for such immigrants in Florida. Bush didn’t back down. “We should give them a path to legal status,” he said of those here illegally, though he emphasized tightening border security in the conservative crowd.

“Let’s control the border,” Bush later said.

The CPAC appearance marked Bush’s first time before a live audience of conservative activists since he began exploring a run for president last December. Bush has spent much of early 2015 behind closed doors, lining up political staff and financiers for his expected campaign. (Bush himself spoke about the tricky “legal terminology” he uses to “not trigger a campaign” formally.)

Bush supporters packed the hall — some still wearing overcoats, appearing as if they came straight from outside for the speech. Some attendees could be heard heckling Bush; others walked out entirely in protest.

“He’s establishment and he is what the Republican Party says they’ve been fighting against for the last while,” said Christopher Nosko, a junior at UNC-Charlotte, who was among those who walked out.

Despite the debate raging on Capitol Hill Friday, Bush avoided taking a stance on whether Congress should cut off funds for the Homeland Security Department to fight President Obama’s executive actions.

“I’m not an expert on the ways of Washington,” Bush said.

Bush did take some shots at President Obama — for executive overreach and on foreign policy, accusing Obama of a “total misunderstanding” of the Islamic State and saying, “We’ve managed to mess up almost every relationship in the world.”

Asked for a quick thought on Hillary Clinton, Bush said, “foreign fund-raising.” Earlier Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio had answered the same question with one word: “Yesterday.”

Bush most found his footing on foreign affairs, arguing for the need to “re-engage with a strong military.” He received an ovation from the crowd at the end of the appearance.

Earlier on Friday, when Hannity was on stage for his own speech, he asked the crowd to cheer for the various possible presidential candidates.

Bush received more boos than cheers.

In fact, Hannity’s offhand remark that “some of you were drinking heavily last night” got notably more applause.

When Hannity told Bush of the “boos” he received, the governor replied, “I’m marking them down as neutral, and I want to be your second choice.”

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Emma Roller contributed to this article.
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