NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — When Jeb Bush took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, he found himself defending stances on the two most tricky political issues for him in a GOP presidential primary: immigration and Common Core.
The audience was polarized over Bush: William Temple — a frequent presence on the tea party circuit who wears colonial garb and waves a Gadsden flag at events — led a quiet walkout of several dozen attendees at the beginning of Bush’s remarks.
But the ballroom was still packed: young professionals — wearing red “Jeb!” stickers and bussed in from Washington D.C. for the speech by Bush’s “Right to Rise” PAC — clapped loudly for the former Florida governor, even when he argued for a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants.
In a 25-minute question and answer session on stage with the Fox News host Sean Hannity, Bush attempted to demonstrate his conservative bonafides. Some in the conservative base express skepticism about his brand of conservatism.
When Hannity brought up immigration, some in the audience boo-ed, before Bush’s supporters overwhelmed the dissenters with applause. Bush plugged his book on the topic. “In that book, I talk about first and foremost the need to enforce the borders,” Bush said. “A great country needs to enforce the borders.”
He then called for “economic-driven immigrants” — those that Bush explained “come here to work.”
“The plan also includes a path to legal status … and I know there’s disagreement here. … The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people,” Bush said.
When Hannity asked Bush if Common Core, which Bush supports, is a federal takeover of education, Bush replied: “No, it’s not.”
While still supporting the program, Bush argued “what we should say” is “the federal government has no role in the creation of standards, either directly or indirectly.”
Asked by Hannity what he thinks about the notion from some conservatives that he is a moderate, Bush dismissed the characterization. “I would describe myself as a practicing, reform-minded, conservative,” he said.
Earlier at CPAC, a reporter asked Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus how he thinks Bush’s position on Common Core will affect the race. “It’s hard to tell,” Priebus replied.
“I think for the most part, what you’ll see from our candidates is, they are in favor of standards,” Priebus told a group of reporters and bloggers inside a hotel suite at CPAC. “But how those standards are administered and whose in control of those standards is going to be for each candidate to decide how to articulate that message.”
Priebus added: “I mean as far as Common Core and what it developed into, clearly you know that the RNC is opposed to it. And I’m not breaking any news here, but we passed an unanimous resolution opposed to Common Core in April of 2013.”
After Bush’s appearance Friday afternoon, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, known for his ardent opposition to the Obama administration’s policies on illegal immigration, was set to appear at CPAC to offer a rebuttal of sorts to Bush. Sessions, according to office, planned to argue that Republicans need to put the working class before the donor class when it comes to the 2016 race.