NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Jeb Bush defended his credentials as a “reform-minded conservative” on Friday, even as he held firm to positions that threaten to undermine his standing with party activists, telling skeptics at the Conservative Political Action Conference he hoped to be their “second choice.”
During a question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity at the annual gathering of conservative activists, the former Florida governor acknowledged that many are suspicious of his potential candidacy. He emphasized that Republicans need to appeal to a broader audience of people.
“There are a lot of other conservatives that haven’t been asked. They don’t know that they’re conservative,” he said. “If we share our enthusiasm, love for our country and believe in our philosophy, we will be able to get Latinos and young people and other people that we need to win,” he said.
The crowd’s doubts about Bush were evident early. When Hannity conducted an informal audience poll of potential 2016 candidates, Bush’s name provoked a chorus of boos.
Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host, launched a broadside against the son and brother of former presidents, saying he would be better off on a ticket with Hillary Clinton than leading the GOP ticket.
Bush offered quick and practiced answers on most of the topics that have complicated his relationships with conservatives.
On immigration, he reiterated his support for some kind of path to legal status for those who have come to the U.S. illegally, saying there “is no plan to deport 11 million people.” But Bush also said he opposed President Obama’s recent executive actions that would shield up to 5 million from deportation.
He stood by his support for granting driver’s licenses and in-state tuition to some immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The latter, he noted, was enacted in Florida just last year “by one of the most conservative state legislatures, I might add, and a conservative governor. Not by me.”
Bush denied reports that he may be shifting his opposition to same-sex marriage as he courts gay donors. “I believe in traditional marriage,” he said.
Before Bush spoke, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky defended his vision of a more limited foreign policy. He was followed immediately by Rick Santorum’s push for a more aggressively military response to the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.