It’s fair to say CPAC is not friendly territory for Jeb Bush.
His warm-up acts at the Conservative Political Action Conference included professional fear-monger Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame—who mentioned genital herpes.
When Donald Trump, real estate mogul and annual fake presidential contender, mentioned Bush in a speech earlier in the day, the crowd booed.
Many of the conservatives attending the three-day conference distrust Bush primarily for his support for immigration and Common Core. On Friday, they were not shy about letting him know—he was heckled as soon as he set foot on stage.
During his remarks a man in a tri-corner hat and a large, yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, stood just outside the ballroom yelling about Common Core—a program Bush supported as governor of Florida much to the horror of the conservative base. Then there were the questions during a Q&A with Fox News host Sean Hannity. While rival Sen. Ted Cruz received softballs—and by that I mean he and Hannity probably should have shared a cigarette after his questions concluded—Bush was asked complicated, multi-part questions about his record.
Think the debate scene in the brotastic movie “Old School,” but harder.
Despite all of these distractions, he did pretty well.
Bush ditched the speech portion of the appearance and went straight to the Q&A, a forum advisers admit are much more his forte than delivering prepared remarks. But, in many ways, it was two steps forward and one step back.
Asked about his support for a pathway for legal status for undocumented immigrants, Bush first expressed support for border security—then went into the jaws of the CPAC beast.
“The plan also includes a path to legal status,” Bush said.
“I know there’s disagreement here,” he said. “The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people, we should give them a path to legal status.”
Bush said President Obama overreached with his executive order and then hit congressional Republicans for their current strategy to defund the Department of Homeland Security in an (ill-fated) attempt to stop the executive order from taking effect.
“It makes no sense to me that we’re not funding control of our border, which is the whole argument,” he said. “I’m missing something.”
(Crowd: Golf claps.)
Asked about the influx of children from Central America who came across the border last year, Bush said they should have been sent back immediately upon crossing the border illegally.
Hannity inquired as to whether Bush stood by his support of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrant and in-state tuition for children of undocumented parents. Bush said, “I do.”
In many ways, Bush knew what to expect. Two years ago, he gave an awkward, uncomfortable keynote speech to CPAC attendees that was received with intermittent polite applause and silence. In it, he stressed the need to be more welcoming to immigrants and to stop projecting the image of being “anti-everything.”
“Way too many people believe that Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti- science, anti-gay, anti-worker and the list goes on and on,” he said.
He was asked to atone for the comments on Friday by Hannity. And he was ready.
“I think conservatives in Washington have been principled at opposing the overreach, they’ve actually done a pretty good job,” he said. “Over time, we have to start being for things again.”
The questions did allow Bush to show off some of his conservative credentials. He boasted about how he called himself “Veto Corleone” because he disappeared so many things from the budget as governor of Florida.
He advocated for a robust foreign policy and did a much better job conveying his foreign policy views than he did several weeks ago during a much-hyped address in Chicago.
This speech was less about courting potential supporters and more about answering conservative suspicions about his record dead on. He had to begin the conversation with his biggest skeptics on the right—and live to tell the tale.
Bush did more than that.
As one particularly insistent heckler boo’s, Bush stopped speaking.
“I’m marking you down as neutral,” he said to the person in the darkness. “I’ll look forward to being your second choice.”