Jeb Bush will make his first overtures Friday to conservative activists, a segment of the Republican Party that remains skeptical of the presumptive presidential candidate.
The former Florida governor’s appearance at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington marks an early test of whether he can assuage a grassroots base that rejects his support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards and is leery of his political lineage.
Given the choice by conference organizers, Bush has opted for a question-and-answer session instead of a traditional speech. Bush’s advisers believe the format plays to the strengths of the former Florida governor, who has been been deft in extemporaneous exchanges with audiences during early appearances this year but whose delivery during speeches—with and without teleprompters—has been rushed and uneven. Bush is scheduled to take questions for 20 minutes Friday afternoon from Fox commentator Sean Hannity.
Bush is hoping to use Friday’s Q&A to highlight his conservative record as governor of Florida, but that isn’t entirely up to him. If there was a lesson on Thursday, it was that the moderators matters.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who also opted for the Q&A format, fended off a series of fastballs fired by radio host Laura Ingraham, who grilled him on his temperament and slide in early primary polls. Hannity, meanwhile, lobbed a series of underhand softballs to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But there is no guarantee that Bush will receive the same friendly treatment.
To offset any simmering hostility in the room, Bush’s political-action committee is coordinating transport for supporters to the event—a tactic that Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are also using to ensure friendly crowds. His assigned slot on the conference speaking schedule—following firebreathing NRA executive Wayne LaPierre on the day when Paul supporters are expected to pack the audience—makes the alternate speaking format all the more preferable.
The Q&A format is also symbolic of the type of campaign Bush hopes to run. Earlier this month in a meeting with donors to his super PAC, Bush promised to set up a “digital media platform” to engage in a conversation with voters should he formally launch a presidential campaign.
“You can’t ignore the political process at all, but there is a better way I think of having a two-way communication with people, and to share some powerful ideas that will lift people’s spirits and make their lives better,” Bush said.
Friday’s appearance is an early test of whether Bush, who has been busy vacuuming up the support of the party’s elite financiers and operatives, can have the same success performing for an audience with a much different makeup.
The last time Bush came to CPAC, the reception was tepid. Both the substance and style of his speech were a strange fit for the young, rowdy crowd whom Bush gently admonished to stop chattering while he spoke.
“Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker,” he told the audience. “We must move beyond the divisive and extraneous issues that currently define the public debate. Never again can the Republican Party simply write off entire segments of our society because we assume our principles have limited appeal.” Some conservatives felt the critical notes of Bush’s speech to the confab were off key at a conference that celebrates the party’s doctrinaire impulses.
Bush spent Thursday attending the winter meeting of the conservative Club for Growth, the latest stop on his effort to demonstrate his conservative bona fides.
Despite the grilling, Thursday’s interview was a relative victory for Christie, who could never deliver the same degree of red meat as Ted Cruz. He used the format to beat up on the press and his leading opponent: Jeb Bush.