Bush steps into the Iowa spotlight

DES MOINES, Iowa —Jeb Bush’s quest to win over Hawkeye State skeptics begins this weekend. 

The former Florida governor returned to Iowa for the first time in three years on Friday, making clear he’ll contest the early-voting state if he launches a presidential campaign, as expected.

Though GOP conservatives may initially be wary of the establishment favorite, he'll start trying to assuage those concerns and road test his 2016 message in very different settings and to very diverse groups. 

“First impressions matter,” former Iowa Republican Party political director Craig Robinson told The Hill.

It’s a rapid fire weekend for the Bush scion as he tries to make a lasting impact. He appeared first on Friday at a fundraiser for vulnerable Rep. David Young (R-Iowa) in Urbandale.

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“I just love the state,” the former governor said, as he recalled working on his father’s campaigns here.

“I intend to come back with regularity should I get beyond the possibility of the consideration of running," he promised, "and I’m excited about that prospect because I have a record I think people might be interested in learning about." 

On Saturday, Bush will speak alongside several other likely 2016 contenders at the first-ever Iowa Ag Summit. Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will all be grilled by agribusiness mogul and influential conservative donor Bruce Rastetter on the policy issues that are important to the state’s business-minded rural conservatives.

Also appearing will be the state’s past two caucus winners, 2008 victor and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and 2012 winner, former Pennsylvania  Sen. Rick Santorum. 

Later, Bush has arranged a closed-door event with key state activists at Jethro's BBQ 'n Jambalaya in Waukee, followed by a meet-and-greet with supporters at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids.

The events are an early opportunity for Bush to test his support among activists in a critical early-voting state known for its informed, engaged, and socially conservative primary electorate.

“It’s a smart schedule, he’s checked the policy, retail and politics boxes,” said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn. “He’s picked up leaders for his campaign that know their way around the state. They’re influential and they’re pros. This first visit to the state is evidence that they have a smart team that knows Iowa.” 

Orchestrating that effort is David Kochel, who led Mitt Romney’s Iowa campaigns in 2008 and 2012; now, he’s Bush’s top political advisor who will likely move into the role of campaign manager. This week, the Bush team also brought on Des Moines-based GOP strategist Annie Kelly to lead his operations in the Hawkeye State. 

The public focus of Bush’s trip will center around the Ag Summit, and the unique setting at the Iowa Fairgrounds is one where he could shine.

Some Republicans have criticized Bush for stumbling through his first major policy addresses, perhaps the result of rust from having been off the campaign trail after leaving office over eight years ago. 

But the former governor has excelled in the question-and-answer sessions after his speeches, and he did so again in his interview with Sean Hannity to a potentially hotile crowd at the Conservative Political Action Convention last weekend. 

Similarly, the conversation-style sit-down in Iowa with Rastetter will allow Bush the space to outline his policy positions to a more open-minded conservative crowd. 

“It’s one thing come to Iowa and address a crowd of a thousand raging conservatives,” Robinson said. “This is different. These are Ag groups, they’re more industry driven…it will be hard for anyone to hit it out of the park because this crowd won’t be tailor made for clever one-liners. This crowd is going to be more focused and honed in on serious topics on a heavy day of interviews.” 

But Bush’s schedule will also allow him to make an early pitch to the base and activists in the state. While the former Florida governor remains heavily focused on fundraising, the trip marks a foray into the kind of retail politicking that won’t become commonplace until the candidates officially announce later this year. 

Steve Scheffler, the president of Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, said he’s been in contact with the Bush team about hosting future events in the state, signaling that the former governor does intend to make a serious run at the caucuses. 

Despite the conventional wisdom that Bush isn’t a natural fit for conservative voters in Iowa, Scheffler pointed out that Romney only narrowly lost the state to Santorum in 2012. 

“I think it’s level playing field for all of these candidates,” he said. “Iowans are fair minded, they’ll give him an avenue to talk about the issues and direction he’d like to take. I don’t think these people are narrow-minded, he’ll get a fair hearing, I don’t think the cards are stacked against him or anyone else.”

Still, the Iowa political landscape is dominated by influential conservative talkers, like Steve Deace, and conservative groups, like the Family Leadership Council, that hew more closely to the right flank of the party.  

Ultimately, Bush doesn't have to win the first caucus state, given more friendly territory that awaits in New Hampshire and Florida. But he still has to perform well — and this weekend is just the beginning to laying that groundwork.

“This is a long game, particularly in Iowa, which rewards those who put in the most shoe leather,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “If Bush wants buzz, it’s going to require many, many more trips.”