NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- When he speaks here Friday, Jeb Bush isn’t likely to win over many hearts and minds at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of activists and party leaders near Washington.
Establishment Republicans like the former governor of Florida rarely do so at an event dominated by a young, libertarian wing of the party. Bush's task, on the other hand, is to pay his respects and avoid any costly errors, such as Mitt Romney’s “severely conservative” outing at the same conference in 2012. The format of the event -- a 20-minute question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity -- plays to Bush's strengths, but also carries risk, as it will likely cover hostile territory.
Bush's attendance also gives conservatives an opportunity to shape the debate in their favor, as well as a chance to protest moderate elements of the party that failed to sweep a Republican into the White House in the last two presidential elections.
The main sticking point regarding another Bush presidential campaign, at least according to some conservatives at the conference, is his support for the Common Core academic standards. Bush has said he would remain committed to the standards if he runs for president, a politically fraught move given their unpopularity in the Republican Party. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Bush’s likely rivals in the 2016 race who once supported the standards, have since renounced them.
Dorothy Marsh, a retired teacher of 40 years from Jacksonville, Florida, said her son shared a class with “little Jeb” in high school. Despite her familiarity with the man, Marsh took issue with his enthusiastic embrace of Common Core, which she described as overly restrictive.
“Teachers need to have creativity in their classroom,” Marsh told The Huffington Post on Thursday. “The last few years, I felt like I got up and put on clothes that didn’t fit. I was wearing someone else’s clothes. This is not the way I reach children and I wasn’t being an effective teacher because I wasn’t comfortable in what I was doing.”
Emmett McGroarty of the American Principles Project, a Republican group that advocates for immigration reform and opposes Common Core, said he was concerned the issue may cause long-term damage. He sketched out a worst-case scenario should the party ultimately nominate a candidate like Bush.
“I think almost all the candidates on the Republican side will be against the Common Core. That could fracture the vote and you could end up with a pro-Common Core nominee,” McGroarty said. “In the general [election], that pro-Common Core nominee will run against likely Hillary Clinton, who has no Common Core baggage. And that is going to make the Republican candidate, I think, unelectable. Because the conservative voters will be disappointed, their turnout will be suppressed and low.”
The absence of visible support for Bush was conspicuous throughout the sprawling Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center on Thursday, where backers of other GOP candidates flaunted T-shirts and banners, and handed out stickers. Some attendees said that they were willing to hear Bush out, but he wasn’t the first choice in their hearts or in their CPAC straw poll selections -- the results of which will be announced on Saturday.
"He's too moderate, like his brother,” Bill Bergmeier said of Bush. “They both move too much towards the Democrat side." An Iowa native, Bergmeier said he is looking forward to voting in his state's first-in-the-nation Republican caucus next year, but has no plans to vote for Bush. "I like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and Sarah Palin," he said.
Jeffrey Capella, a self-identified "staunch neo-conservative," said he doesn't have "any real hesitations" about Bush's candidacy. Nonetheless, Bush was not Capella's first choice in the CPAC straw poll. "I chose [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio as my first pick," he said. "But Jeb Bush was number two."
Other conference-goers voiced concerns about Bush's family name and the difficulties it could give the candidate in the general election. Bush recently declared himself “my own man” in an attempt to distance himself from his brother’s legacy of costly wars and economic catastrophe. But questions remain as to whether he can withstand direct attacks from his fellow Republicans once the campaign is truly underway.
"I see a strong candidate, but I just wonder what his strategy is going to be," said Austin von Henner, a student at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee. Von Henner said he appreciated that Bush has "a firm position" on issues like education and immigration policy, but acknowledged they could "use some fine-tuning" before 2016. "For a conservative mind, he is, all-in-all, a good candidate."
Still, there was a sense that, if push comes to shove, and Bush is the only option on the table, some conservatives could hold their nose and vote the party line like they did for Romney in 2012.
“I would consider him. Quite frankly, I’ll vote for anybody than a Democrat,” said David Sandifer, a veteran from Maryland who supports Ben Carson. “It’s kind of like one of those lesser-of-two-evils things.”