Jeb Bush walked into the lion's den of the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday, and walked out smiling — thanks to a few busloads of his supporters who proved louder and more persistent than his hecklers.
Bush, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, started out unevenly in his interview-style appearance, rushing through his answers to Fox News host Sean Hannity, using clunky phrases from his stump speech, and at times almost shouting to overcome boos and taunts.
But his own backers strategically occupied the center of the cavernous ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort just outside Washington, D.C. They easily drowned out the hecklers (many of them sporting Rand Paul T-shirts), and Bush quickly hit his stride.
"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 to loud cheers.
Bush's views on immigration and the Common Core education standards rile many conservatives, and his brother George W. Bush's Iraq War angers many in the Republican Party's libertarian wing who tend to support Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky and also a likely 2016 presidential candidate. It was this group that tried to organize a mass walkout on Bush's appearance.
That didn't come to pass, and Bush cruised through his 25 minutes with Hannity staying on the message he came to deliver, including a recitation of a conservative record in his two terms as Florida's governor. "It's a record of accomplishment, of getting things done," Bush said. "Florida is a place where conservative principles have helped not just Republicans, but everybody."
Bush spoke to his supporters afterward and acknowledged their role. "It made a huge difference," Bush said to the packed conference room. "That was raucous, and wild, and I loved it."
Friday's appearance was only Bush's second at CPAC. He'd stayed away from the annual gathering during his years as governor as part of his strategy to avoid events that fed presidential speculation.
His appearance in 2013 came as part of his publicity tour for a new book, Immigration Wars, which argued for policies similar to those that wound up in the Senate immigration overhaul that passed later that year.
Bush used that occasion to scold his party for seeming "anti-everything," but he also prescribed the same optimistic message of a "right to rise" that is the theme of his pre-campaign. It was not well-received by that audience, but neither did he face the open hostility he saw Friday.
Bush, 62, served two terms as Florida governor. He cut $14 billion in taxes, signed gun-rights laws, including the controversial "stand your ground" bill, created three private school voucher programs, and spent public money to persuade women to avoid abortions.
Many conservatives nevertheless mistrust him because of his support for more stringent education standards in Common Core and for an immigration overhaul that does not call for the deportation of all those in this country illegally.