OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — As Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush was among the nation’s most conservative state chief executives. He’s quietly embarking on work to convince the right flank of the Republican Party that he would be that same kind of conservative in the White House.
Eight years removed from office, Bush is viewed by some conservatives as a squishy moderate: a member of the GOP’s most established family with toxic positions on immigration and education standards.
For that reason, perhaps none of the likely 2016 candidates has more to gain than Bush at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the nation’s largest annual conference of conservative activists.
“The challenge for him is this isn’t about yesterday, it’s about tomorrow,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. “The key is, what will he do if he’s president of the United States, and does he have a message that will appeal to conservatives?”
Bush speaks at CPAC on Friday, and amid his aggressive fundraising efforts nationwide, his team and key backers are also taking steps to remind the party of his history as a conservative in office.
In a possible trial run for his Friday speech, Bush asserted a fiscally conservative stance and record during a speech to the Club for Growth, an influential anti-tax group, at its winter meeting in Florida.
“If you apply conservative principles and you stick with it, and you have the leadership skills to bring people toward the cause, you can move the needle on these things,” Bush said. “Trust me, I did.”
In phone calls and private meetings, Bush’s team is reviving old alliances with top social and economic conservatives, broadening his network of conservative opinion leaders and trying to quiet his more aggressive critics. Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush supporter and former chairman of the American Conservative Union, said it would take Bush six to eight months to “totally set the record straight.”
“As I’ve told the governor, the key word is patience,” Cardenas said. “I can tell you as a matter of fact those meetings have begun to be placed on the calendar and are beginning to take place. He wants leaders of the movement to be comfortable with his leadership.”
Cardenas and other Bush allies say the problem is one of misperception, as conservatives of a new era are simply less familiar with his record as Florida governor.
Aides say that while in office from 1999 to 2007, Bush was among the first state executives to take on teachers unions, lowered taxes each year and signed Florida’s “stand your ground” gun law. He was a hero among social conservatives for his actions to keep Michael Schiavo from removing the feeding tube from his brain-damaged wife, Terri.
Today’s criticism centers almost entirely on Bush’s support for Common Core education standards and an immigration policy that would create a path to citizenship for people living in the country illegally. He is also hurt by lingering resentment over the rise in government spending during brother George W. Bush’s administration.
Skeptics were reminded of their misgivings late last year, when Bush said a Republican might need to “lose the primary to win the general,” viewed by some as a swipe at the heavy influence of conservatives in picking the party’s White House nominee.
Just four in 10 self-identified conservatives and tea party supporters rated Bush favorably in an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted earlier this month. There was evidence, too, of anti-Bush sentiment in the crowded hotel lobbies Thursday as thousands of activists gathered for CPAC.
“I have not seen a single Jeb Bush button here,” said Neil McGettigan, 25, of New Jersey. “Honestly, I think the media’s more excited about him than anyone here.”
As they privately court prominent conservatives, Bush’s confidants are also encouraging him to outline his conservative bona fides more publicly. Longtime Bush donor Al Hoffman said he recently told the governor he needs to openly explain how his positions on immigration and Common Core are in line with conservative economic principles.
Bush’s team is also trying to win over some of his most aggressive critics. They include Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, who praises Bush’s economic record as Florida governor, but regularly attacks his refusal to sign a pledge not to raise taxes if elected president. Bush is one of the only top-tier GOP presidential contenders not to sign.
“I’ve had a bunch of people from Jeb’s world call me on behalf of the campaign,” Norquist said. “There are many things he did well as governor. … But it’s all about the pledge. It makes you wonder about whether he’s a team player.”
Some conservatives need no convincing. Bush already enjoys formal and informal support from a growing network of well-connected conservative leaders with whom he maintains regular contact.
“It’d be hard to be better than Bush on the life issue,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national group that advocates for social conservative values and supports candidates who oppose abortion. “He’s said many times — said it to me — that he can be counted on.”
While Schlapp won’t formally endorse a presidential candidate as leader of the American Conservative Union, he said Bush had “sterling conservative credentials” as Florida governor and “took prominent conservative positions in a battleground state.”
“Conservatives play a large role in determining who the Republican nominee is,” said Schlapp, who served as political director in Bush’s brother’s White House. “People will forgive him if they connect to him when he makes his pitch. I think that’s what’s critical.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and AP news survey specialist Emily Swanson contributed to this report from Washington. Beaumont reported from Palm Beach, Florida.
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