Jeb Bush’s likely presidential candidacy will face its first major test on Friday when he addresses a rowdy group of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). 

It’s a critical moment for the former Florida governor as he looks to convince conservatives that he appeals to more than just the GOP establishment. 


“Republicans want a candidate that can win in 2016, but conservatives want to win with a conservative,” said Republican pollster and strategist Kellyanne Conway.

Bush will have to face his two biggest liabilities among conservatives head on Friday: his support for Common Core and for immigration reform. 

Instead of giving a speech, Bush has opted to be interviewed by Fox News host Sean Hannity, a conservative firebrand with a reputation for challenging Republican leadership.

Hannity told The Hill on Thursday he would grill Bush over his stances on Common Core and immigration.

“Of course,” Hannity said. “Absolutely.”

Both issues have already been the primary focus for many speakers and panels at the conference.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson opened the conference bashing President Obama’s immigration executive actions to huge applause, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal later thundered that Common Core must be repealed en masse across the country.

The American Principles Project also held a forum on Thursday with conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly called “Common Core: Rotten to the Core?,” while Citizens United unveiled a film about five U.S. citizens who have been harmed by illegal immigrants.

Bush’s soft touch on immigration is believed by many to be a significant hurdle for the former Florida governor in the GOP primary. According to a CNN-ORC poll released late last year, Republicans say that Bush's now-infamous statement that some illegal immigration is an "act of love" to reunite families makes them less likely to vote for him.

And Common Core has become toxic in conservative circles. Bush didn’t implement the set of standards as Florida governor, but he’s supported them through his education foundation since leaving office. Bush has signaled he won’t change his stance on the issue to appease the base.

“What Gov. Bush should do is show up at CPAC and make sure in the Q&A format that he’s able to get out exactly where he stands on these issues,” Conway said.

“I would call CPAC for Bush somewhere between hostile territory and his natural habitat,” she added. “I think he’ll receive a polite reception, but I think people are waiting to see how close this Bush actually is to Ronald Reagan.”

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said an additional challenge for Bush will be connecting the more youthful CPAC audience. Bush hasn’t run for office in 12 years, and many youths at the conference are inclined to support libertarian-leaning Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or other new faces in the party.

"It is younger, which means Jeb Bush they don't know,” Norquist said. “He's either some guy they don't know anything about or he's 'brother and son of,' so he really needs to reintroduce himself … otherwise he's just related to these other guys who they may or may not like.”

On Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used his time to paint Bush as a member of the Republican elite. 

“If what happens is the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide the nominee, then he’s the front-runner,” Christie said.

Bush’s extended absence from office and the campaign trail has also been an early focus of some of his critics.

Strategists interviewed by The Hill have noted that Bush has stumbled at points in his first major policy addresses, perhaps the result of rust from having spent so much time away from the campaign trail. 

But he’s excelled in the question-and-answer sessions after his speeches, giving the Hannity interview significant upside for him. 

Bush is comfortable riffing about the nuance in his positions while respectfully dismissing those who have bashed him as not being a true conservative. If he can duplicate those performances on Friday, it may give him the opening he needs to make inroads among conservatives at the conference.

“He’s such a policy wonk and studier, in some ways he’s been preparing for this for a long time,” Conway said. 

It’s also an opportunity for Bush to take hold of his image and separate himself from the way he’s been framed in the media and by many on the right.

"This is an audience that doesn't know him so he's got to reintroduce himself,” Norquist said. “He's got to remember... this audience doesn't  [know him], it's national, they're not from Florida. He needs to start from the ground up on who he is.”

 Conway said that in the end, conservatives will back someone they believe can win the White House in 2016.

“On the one hand the so-called moderate establishment candidates have failed spectacularly,” she said. “On the other hand, the last two successful Republican nominees have both been named Bush.”