ORLANDO, Fla. — It had already been a long day when Jeb Bush slipped through closed doors and into a meeting with old pals.
The former Florida governor had given a speech to an invitation-only crowd that drew the day’s only standing ovations (three of them) and had a live hit on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News show in the lobby of a Disney resort and then elbowed his way through a massive scrum of reporters shouting questions in two languages.
Through it all, Jeb was home.
Bush has taken some hits in the past few weeks: His poll numbers dipped, and his struggle to answer questions about the Iraq War won him scorching criticism.
But the 50 or so Floridians who spent an hour and a half behind closed doors with the former governor emerged as excited as ever about his potential campaign.
That room was a microcosm of everything that makes Bush a formidable candidate.
To be in said microcosm, by the way, you had to have two invitations: one to the event as a whole—as Governor Rick Scott’s Economic Growth Summit was invitation-only, unlike most other 2016 cattle calls—and then another to that private get-together itself.
Before Bush even set foot in the colorfully carpeted Disney resort, he’d already seen his top rival get hamstrung.
Conventional wisdom holds that Senator Marco Rubio and Bush will be the only two serious contenders in the state’s primary contest (even Scott Walker, who promised to try to compete in the state, has intimated as much) and Scott’s event was supposed to be a cold war between Florida’s two favorite sons.
But it wasn’t to be.
Rubio cancelled his appearance at the last minute because of a vote in the Senate on the Patriot Act, and instead addressed the crowd in a short video that felt stilted and awkward.
It was a tough crowd.
Brecht Heuchan, a senior adviser to Scott’s Let’s Get To Work PAC, said the governor had hand-picked each of the 450 attendees, the bulk of whom were industry leaders, business owners, and other corporate power brokers.
CPAC this wasn’t.
In fact, besides attracting substantial national media attention (170 media credentials were issued, per Heuchan’s count) and roping in 2016’s top-polling presidential contenders, the event’s audience was mostly subdued and dispassionate.
No volunteer-staffed booths handing out bumper stickers, no rockabilly bands pumping up the crowd with patriotic tunes, no tricorn hats. Instead, the audience was comprised of men and women in dark suits who darted out of the conference room and into the hallway to murmur in small groups and hiss into bluetooth headsets.
In other words, this was Bush territory.
And he owned it. His reception there couldn’t have been more different than how he was received at CPAC. Back in March, when he spoke at the conservative activist confab, a handful of CPAC attendees marched out of the room behind a man wearing Revolutionary War garb and hoisting a Gadsden flag.
At Rick Scott’s invite-only event, Bush waltzed onstage to a lengthy standing ovation, complete with whoops, cheers, and whistles—the only candidate to get that kind of greeting. When he wrapped up his speech, the crowd jumped to their feet to give him another standing ovation. And when he finished taking questions from the crowd after that, he got his third standing O of the day.
“Anytime you get three standing ovations in a speech, it’s a pretty good sign,” said Will Weatherford, former Florida speaker of the house. “Certainly it’s a home crowd, but there’s four people from Florida running for president.”
After the speech, Bush appeared on Cavuto and then got swarmed by a huge mass of reporters—the only candidate at the event to get swamped that way. He fielded questions in English and Spanish. And he seemed comfortable playing hardball on campaign finance. His Right to Rise PAC has drawn significant scrutiny, and some campaign watchdog groups have called on the Justice Department to investigate it for improper coordination.
In the middle of Monday’s scrum, Bush brushed off a question about that possible lawbreaking.
“No, I don’t think it’s possible,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of lawyers advising me along the way.”
And he was similarly relaxed when a reporter asked if he felt that he’d been pushed back on his heels over the last few weeks.
“No, not at all,” he said. “Out there bein’ and doin’, learnin’.”
Then he went to be, do, and learn in a closed-door meeting with old friends.
A constellation of Florida stars—including former speaker of the house Will Weatherford, former Representative Tom Feeney, former U.S. Senator George LeMieux, and CNN contributor Ana Navarro—gathered to chat with the potential candidate and give him a warm reception.
Meeting attendees said there were about 50 people in the room, and that Bush shook hands, posed for photos, gave short remarks, and answered questions as the small crowd sipped on Perrier and munched hard candies.
Billionaire investor and Palm Beach resident Wilbur Ross, who attended, told The Daily Beast afterward that he asked Bush how he would differentiate himself from the other primary candidates.
“He gave a very good answer: by making sure people understood who he is and what his record was,” Ross said, adding that he’s known Bush for “quite a while.”
And Nabil El Sanadi, the president and CEO of Broward Health and a member of the Florida Board of Medicine, said Bush told attendees that he will announce soon that he’s running for president.
“He just reaffirmed the fact that he hasn’t declared yet but he’s going to declare very soon,” he said.
Sanadi said the questions were all friendly, “nothing hostile.”
“He said he’s going to declare his candidacy in his own time, which would be very soon,” he continued.
And Feeney emailed later that Jeb’s team and supporters “were thrilled with the day in Orlando.”
“He believes the cornerstone of his campaign victory is largely dependent on American voters getting to know more about him as a person,” Feeney continued. “Those of us that do know him agree that if that happens, he will be our next president.”
Jeb’s enormously warm Florida reception is a reminder that no matter how much he’s beat up in the press, he can always count on his friends—billionaires, legislators, and business moguls—to cheer him on.