Jeb stands his ground on immigration, Common Core
© Greg Nash

Jeb Bush stood his ground in front of an occasionally hostile crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, giving a strong defense of his conservative record that seemed to slowly disarm his opponents in the crowd.

The former Florida governor’s appearance had all of the feeling of the main event of the three-day conservative confab. 


The crowd piled in early to pack the standing-room-only middle section of the Potomac Ballroom at the Gaylord National Convention Center just across the border from the nation's capital. Conference-goers stood along the walls, blocking entrances into the huge conference room.

Rather than a speech, Bush opted for a question-and-answer session with Fox News host and conservative firebrand Sean Hannity, who challenged Bush early on immigration and Common Core, his two biggest liabilities among conservatives.

“Every article I’ve ever read talks about you and the divide between the conservative movement on two issues; it has to do with immigration and Common Core,” Hannity said.

The crowd exploded into equal parts jeers and cheers.

“I know there’s disagreement here,” Bush said. He then launched into an immigration reform argument that focused on aspects of the debate where he and the base agree.

Bush condemned President Obama’s executive actions on immigration and said his first move if he was elected president would be to repeal the “overreach.”

“The simple fact is, the president has gone way beyond his powers to do this, and Congress has every right to reinstate their responsibility,” Bush said of Obama's decision last year allowing millions to stay in the country legally. 

He also argued for strong border security and a regulatory system that makes it easy for the country to attract “economic-driven immigrants.”

But Bush didn’t back away from his compassionate message on immigration, arguing that there’s no reasonable way to deport the 11 million people in the country illegally. 

There should be a path to legal status for those immigrants here illegally if they “work … don’t break the law, learn English, and contribute to society,” Bush said.

On Common Core, Bush declined to reject his support of the standards, but he has adopted the standard conservative line that the principles have been hijacked by liberals and the Obama administration and that the federal government has no business meddling in the classroom.

“All of us are deeply concerned that this president and Department of Education are intruding,” he said. “We must say clearly … the federal government has no role in creating standards either directly or indirectly, and no role in the creation of content in the classrooms.”

Bush also touted his record of supporting vouchers, charter schools and expanded school choice, which are supported by many in the GOP. 

Bush’s CPAC address was the first major test for his likely presidential candidacy, as he seeks to convince conservatives that he appeals to more than just the GOP establishment.

Early on Friday, things appeared to be moving against him.

After some restrained and sidelong knocks against Bush at the conservative conference on Thursday, the knives came out for him ahead of his appearance.

Influential conservative radio host Laura Ingraham criticized Bush on immigration, labeled him an establishment candidate undeserving of a “coronation,” and even went after Bush’s wife, Columba, for media reports that have highlighted her expensive taste in jewelry.

"I think women could actually turn out in droves for Jeb Bush," she said. "I mean, what woman doesn't like a man who gives her a blank check at Tiffany's? I mean, 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' would be a great theme song for Jeb."

Earlier, Hannity had ticked through all of the potential candidates asking the crowd who they would support. Bush got booed while the room exploded in cheers for perennial favorite, Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection MORE.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE later called Bush unelectable.

“He’s in favor of common core; he’s weak on immigration,” the real estate mogul said to applause. “You remember his statement ‘they come over for love?’ That was his stance on immigration. I don’t see him as winning.

There were rumors before the event that anti-Bush activists would stage a walk-out during his address.

The movement was led by a man dressed in a Tea Party costume and it attracted a small gathering outside the conference room where Bush was speaking. The group raised a minor ruckus and their chants could be heard briefly inside the ballroom, but the walk-out never materialized.

But Bush appears to have withstood the barrage.

The crowd for his address was wired early and split between those who were ready to turn on Bush for any misstep and those who were there cheering him on through the issues where he struggles with the base. 

There were some early disruptions from conference-goers trying to shout down the former Florida governor, and Bush had to fight back, raising his voice to get his points across.

But in the end, it was a strong showing for Bush. The crowd, packed with supporters of the former governor, settled in and Hannity gave him opportunities to highlight his conservative record.

Bush took full advantage, showcasing his fiscal record as Florida governor, where he said he left $9.5 billion in reserves, 3 percent unemployment and one of the highest economic growth rates in the country.

This post was updated at 4:40 p.m.