NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- A determined band of supporters of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) walked out on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) on Friday as he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
A few dozen Paul backers -- many of whom donned red "Stand With Rand" T-shirts -- quietly made their way down the middle aisle and out the door during Bush's speech. Once outside the main ballroom at the Gaylord National Convention Center, where Bush was speaking, they rowdily gathered and denounced the man many see as the Republican Party's leading candidate for president in 2016.
"We're here at CPAC, and I almost think it's a joke having Jeb Bush here because he doesn't stand for conservative principles," said Timothy Simons, 21, the Connecticut chairman of Young Americans for Liberty and one of the Paul supporters who walked out.
"I was part of the walkout, and I'll tell you why," said Allen Skillicorn, vice chairman of the Kane County Republican Party in Illinois. "If Jeb Bush is nominated, Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. ... How is he any different?"
There were rumors circulating earlier in the week about a possible walkout. CPAC is traditionally dominated by a younger, more libertarian group of activists who prefer Paul and pot legalization to Common Core and hawkish national security positions.
Indeed, Paul received by far the most enthusiastic reception at CPAC. His supporters shouted "President Paul!" during his speech earlier in the day, and when Donald Trump mentioned Bush's name, they filled the room with boos.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham also came out swinging against Bush Friday morning, saying he was no different than Hillary Clinton and even mocking his wife for her shopping habits.
Joey Gamrat, 17, said he was "appalled" by the walkout. Although he's a Paul supporter, he said Bush deserved credit for stepping into "enemy territory."
"You may not stand with him, but that doesn't mean you just shun him. He's still a guy. He still deserves respect. He's a governor," said Gamrat.
Still, some attendees had no problem walking away from Bush. Grace Charlton, a University of Virginia student and member of Young Americans for Liberty, said Bush's values just don't resonate with young conservatives.
"I barely know any Jeb Bush supporters that are our age," said Charlton, who was decked out in Paul gear. "No one our age is getting out there and saying, 'Jeb Bush is the one who will help us bring freedom back to America.'"
Ben Levitt, 23, said he came to Washington all the way from Canada just to check out CPAC. He said he may live an hour from the U.S. border, but he has plenty of views about Jeb Bush and why he's no different than his brother and father.
"More wars, more debt, more government," Levitt said of what the Bushes are about. "I mean, a fiscal conservative can't really say, 'Oh, I really love George W. Bush.' You just can't. I loved it for eight years. I loved the Iraq war and all that. I finally saw the light, so to speak, and got really into Ron Paul and that message."
Inside the auditorium, Bush was well aware that many young conservatives were hostile to him, a fact that was underscored by the tough questions he got from moderator Sean Hannity. Bush refused to cede potential voters, however, saying of those who were booing, “I’m marking them down as neutral. I want to be your second choice."
His session was dedicated almost entirely to domestic policy, a departure from many of the other speeches by would-be 2016 presidential candidates at CPAC. Bush touted Florida's economic growth under his leadership from 1999-2007, and gave examples of policies he had enacted that would please conservatives.
"I eliminated affirmative action by executive order," he said. "Trust me, there were a lot of people upset about this." Bush also noted that he left office with more than $9 billion in state reserves.
Hannity returned frequently, however, to the two issues that most divide Bush from his party's conservative base: his education policy in Florida, which included testing standards, and his support for comprehensive immigration reform.
On education, Bush sought to differentiate his policies from those of the Common Core state educational standards which have been adopted by a handful of states.
"High standards by themselves aren't meaningful," he said. "They're helpful and they're better than low standards, but if there's no consequence between mediocrity and failure or excellence, then the system won't move forward."
On immigration, Bush stressed the importance of securing the U.S. border, and he emphasized that immigration policy should be focused on "economic-driven immigrants" who bring specialized skills. He also spoke frankly about the need to create a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. "The simple fact is that there is no plan to deport 11 million people," Bush said. "We should give them a path to legal status where they work … and contribute to our society.” Some in the crowd cheered, but there were plenty of boos, too.
Bush got universal applause at predictable spots in his appearance, like when he described Obama as a "failed president" or expressed his support for Israel and his distrust of Iran nuclear negotiations.
During a "lightning round" of questions and word associations near the end of his speech, Bush showed that he can play to his crowd and end on a high note. He reaffirmed his support for "traditional marriage," dinged Hillary Clinton for her "foreign fundraising," and described himself as "a practicing reform-minded conservative."
On Saturday afternoon, CPAC organizers will announce the results of a presidential straw poll conducted over the course of the conference. The results, while technically nonbinding, could signal how well Bush managed to connect with his audience.