NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Jeb Bush encountered a chorus of boos and an organized walkout by hostile conservatives at a conference Friday, a stark reminder of the challenges facing the former Florida governor as he attempts to seize front-runner status in his potential Republican presidential primary run.
Bush gamely stuck by his call for a more inclusive tone, taking the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference to urge his party to reach out to voters who have been turned off by Republican policies.
Calling himself a “practicing, reform-minded conservative,” Bush emphasized some of the conservative legislation he pushed during his eight years as governor. But he devoted about half of his 20 minutes of remarks to his more moderate positions on immigration and education, which are drawing strong opposition from the GOP’s right-wing base.
He was booed several times, and a few dozen people in the audience of nearly 5,000 walked out during his comments, trailing a man in Colonial garb who was carrying a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, one of the symbols of the Tea Party movement. When the group reached the hallway, its members bellowed, “No more Bushes!”
Bush sought to make the best of the negativity.
“To those who made a boo sound — if that’s what it was — I’m marking them down as neutral,” Bush quipped. “And I want to be your second choice.”
Several other candidates, including Senator Rand Paul and Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, were more openly welcomed, with supporters chanting for them to run.
Bush spoke toward the tail end of more than a dozen national contenders who spoke over two days at CPAC, hoping to attract attention for possible Republican primary campaigns. But no appearance was fraught with more suspense than Bush’s.
The crowd was far more charged for Bush’s appearance, with cheers and boos competing with one another. Bush bused in supporters to the conference hotel outside of Washington, helping to ensure that he had at least some boisterous allies in the crowd.
In his remarks, he called for a broad Republican tent. “If we share our enthusiasm, and love for our country, and belief in our philosophy, we will be able to get Latinos and young people and other people that you need to win,” he said.
“It’s good to oppose the bad things,” he added. “We need to start being for things.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity, who was moderating the discussion as he and Bush stood on a stage in the hotel ballroom, listed several of Bush’s positions that are drawing opposition from conservatives, including his support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and for providing driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants.
“I know there is disagreement here,” Bush said, before attempting to defuse tension with a weather joke. “Some of these people are angry about this and look, I kind of feel your pain. I was in Miami this morning. It was 70 degrees.”
But although Bush emphasized his belief that US borders must be strengthened, he stood firm on his stance that the United States must show compassion to illegal immigrants. Bush has been critical of Mitt Romney’s rhetoric on immigration, particularly his talk of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants.
“The simple fact is: There is no plan to deport 11 million people,” Bush said. “We should give them a path to legal status where they work, where they don’t receive government benefits, where they don’t break the law, where they learn English, and where they make a contribution to our society.”
The day’s events several miles away in the Capitol also spilled into Bush’s comments. He said Congress should take action to oppose President Obama’s executive actions to prevent some deportations, but he disagreed with the House Republicans’ tactic of tying that opposition to cutting off funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
“I’m not an expert on the ways of Washington,” said Bush, whose father and brother were both president. “It makes no sense to me that we’re not funding control of our border, which is the whole argument.”
Bush sought to outline the ways in which he governed conservatively in Florida from 1999 to 2007. He cited lowering taxes, fighting for school vouchers, and ending affirmative action. He rejected so much legislation, he said, that he became known as “Veto Corleone.”
But Bush’s last day in office was eight years ago, and many are not familiar with his record as governor. Animosity for Bush and his family was expressed throughout the CPAC conference, in hallways and exhibition space, from the antiabortion booths to the hotel bars.
“I’m against Common Core, he’s for Common Core. I’m for small government, he’s for big government. His name is a killer, and I don’t think he can win,’ said Pat Kroll, a 79-year-old retiree from Reno. “The only thing he’s got going for him is money.”
Conservative activists also worry that Bush does not have the passion or the biting tone that has animated them over the past several years. Family baggage also still lingers among conservatives disappointed with the presidencies of Bush’s father and brother.
“It’s what he believes now that is the biggest issue,” said Carlos Martinez, a 52-year-old musician from Hooksett, N.H. “He’s not conservative at all. He has no conservative, core beliefs.”
Hours before Bush addressed the crowd, radio host Laura Ingraham also had several barbs for Bush from the stage.
“Why don’t we call it quits and Jeb and Hillary can run on the same ticket?” she said, sarcastically.
After his own appearance, Bush retreated to a ballroom with several hundred supporters.
“That was raucous and wild,” he said. “And I loved it.”