Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush returns this week to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, marking one of the earliest chances he has had since he announced he was exploring a presidential bid to face a major gathering of grass-roots conservative activists, many of whom are wary of his ties to the GOP establishment.
Mr. Bush, who will take part in a 20-minute question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity, will also have a chance to erase a lackluster performance from two years ago, when his education reform speech struggled to connect with conservatives who wanted to hear strategies for taking on President Obama.
“Gov. Bush has attended CPAC in the past,” said Kristy Campbell, a Bush spokesperson. “He thinks it is a great opportunity to engage with thousands of conservatives and talk about issues that are important to him as he considers whether to move forward with a potential run.”
GOP observers say it will be a challenge for Mr. Bush to win over the conservatives that turn out for this event.
“I think his goal is to establish or re-establish his conservative bona fides with an audience of conservative activists,” said Charlie Gerow, a board member of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. “I think he can do that. I think his tougher challenge may be to convince them that he is electable.”
Mr. Gerow said “Bush fatigue” affects not only conservatives but the broader electorate as well after the former governor’s father, George H.W. Bush, served four tumultuous years as president, and his brother, George W. Bush, served two terms, leaving a legacy of higher spending, a bigger entitlement system and two controversial wars.
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Jeb Bush’s own record, including support for K-12 education standards known as Common Core, and for legalizing millions of illegal immigrants, has put a bull’s-eye on his back.
“Good luck trying to woo grass-roots conservatives with his positions on amnesty and Common Core,” said Cleta Mitchell, a veteran activist.
Asked about the possible blowback at CPAC on those subjects, Ms. Campbell answered, “The governor is happy to talk about any issue.”
Mr. Bush is just one of the top potential GOP presidential hopefuls who will audition at CPAC, which includes a widely watched straw poll sponsored by The Washington Times.
The latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows Mr. Bush is leading the pack ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Mr. Bush is running third in Iowa behind Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Mr. Huckabee, and second to Mr. Walker in New Hampshire.
He skipped the chance to address conservatives at the Iowa Freedom Summit, which was hosted by Rep. Steve King and Citizens United.
But he has addressed the National Association of Automobile Dealers conference in San Francisco, the Detroit Economic Club and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
He also is scheduled to appear at a Club for Growth event this week.
During his last appearance at CPAC in 2013, Mr. Bush asked not to be included on the poll, which was won by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Mr. Bush’s speech that year was widely panned as too wonky, when activists were hoping for fire-and-brimstone defenses of conservative values and attacks on President Obama.
The former governor also opened up his address in memorable fashion, suggesting the crowd had had too much to drink before he took to the lectern.
“Let’s close the bar off so everyone in the back can stop chattering,” Mr. Bush said, drawing a mixture of polite applause, laughter and murmurs. “That is the best introduction I have gotten in a long time. I wish you all heard it.”
Ms. Mitchell recalled that the speech was “pretty bad stylistically — and sounded like the same speech he was used to giving to the Chamber of Commerce.”
“I was actually quite surprised, because that was the first time I’d heard him sound like a squish rather than a conservative,” Ms. Mitchell said.
John Feehery, a GOP strategist, said Mr. Bush could score some points with potential voters for “just showing up.”
“He won’t get much of [a] reception in the room but will get credit outside the room for speaking truth to folks who probably don’t want to hear it,” Mr. Feehery said. “I think the trick for him is to show that he is the credible alternative who can beat Hillary Clinton in a general election, and to remind voters that he governed as a true-red conservative in Florida a decade ago.”
Grover Norquist, chairman of Americans for Tax Reform and an ACU board member, said that Mr. Bush has the tough task of navigating a political landscape that is much different from the last time he ran for office in 2002.
“There are other guys who have run several times over the last four or five years,” Mr. Norquist said. “It is not being out of shape. It is the difference between rugby and soccer.”
For instance, when Mr. Bush last ran for office, Mr. Norquist said that many within the GOP saw securing earmarks as a sign of strength.
“You talk about earmarks today, and you are looked at like a shoplifter,” Mr. Norquist said.
He said the conversation among Republicans is also very different now, post-tea party, than it was when George W. Bush was president.
“They have a different thing ringing in their ear from the last election — stop spending, dramatic reforms,” he said, alluding to tea party-era candidates. “Bush might be there in his own thinking, but he doesn’t have it necessarily ringing in his ear.”