Jeb Bush has set up a killer fundraising operation, likely to dwarf anything the rest of the prospective Republican presidential field can do.
But that won’t guarantee him the 2016 GOP nomination. Mr. Bush, scion of the party’s most powerful family, needs to win over conservative activists – or at least enough of them to beat the competition when primaries and caucuses begin in a year.
Enter the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the Super Bowl of "movement conservative" activism. The confab begins Wednesday at a conference center just outside the Beltway and is the first big cattle call of the 2016 presidential race. Bush’s appearance at CPAC on Friday – a question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity – may be the most consequential event of the entire four-day conference.
“He is trying to overcome the talk radio meme that he’s a squishy RINO who won’t fight,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, using the acronym for “Republican In Name Only.” On Bush’s unorthodox-for-the-GOP views on immigration and education, “he’s going to have to start to get buy-in.”
The former Florida governor supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for people in the country illegally, and backs the national education standards known as Common Core.
All the speakers at CPAC have the option of eschewing the standard stump speech and submitting to questions from Mr. Hannity, but Bush is the only speaker known up front to have chosen that format. It carries risks; he can’t control the topics. But in other recent public appearances, the self-described introvert has appeared more engaging in conversational settings than in formal speeches.
Another likely presidential hopeful with much at stake at CPAC is Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas. Senator Cruz is a darling of the tea party, but he needs to grow his appeal beyond that core and show that he has a shot at winning the Republican nomination. Cruz speaks on Thursday. Most of the other likely GOP candidates will also appear (as will Sarah Palin and Donald Trump). Some will hold private gatherings with activists.
Young people will be everywhere. Thousands of them. At past CPACs, about half the crowd has been college students, bused in by presidential hopefuls aiming to do well in the straw poll on the final day. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is expected to win, as he has the last two years.
Aside from Cruz, Thursday’s lineup of GOP presidential hopefuls includes three sitting governors: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Political novices Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and conservative star, and Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, also will speak Thursday.
Friday features Senator Paul and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in addition to Bush, who appears at 1:40 p.m. Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, who says he’s still open to running for president, delivers the keynote address at dinner Friday.
Ms. Palin speaks Thursday, and Mr. Trump speaks Friday. A notable CPAC absentee is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has appearances scheduled in Tennessee and South Carolina.
Among Republican voters, Governor Walker is the “it” man of the field. At CPAC, his task is to meet expectations and wow the Republican base. He’s on top in Iowa, the all-important first-caucus state, with the support of 25 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday. Even in Texas, which has two favorite sons preparing to run, Walker leads with 20 percent, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Monday. Cruz had 19 percent and Mr. Perry had only 8 percent.
Walker represents a “two-fer” in the Republican field. He polls well among conservatives (30 percent of the “very conservative” back him in Iowa) and those who self-identify as tea party (33 percent in the Iowa poll). But as a sitting governor who has won statewide three times in Democratic-leaning Wisconsin, he also pulls support from the GOP establishment.
Another angle to watch at CPAC is gay rights. At the last minute, the head of the group Log Cabin Republicans, which supports same-sex marriage, was invited to take part in the panel “Putin’s Russia: A New Cold War?” (but not the one called “The Future of Marriage in America”). Polls show Republicans increasingly accept gay marriage, but among older social conservatives, in particular, opposition remains high. This wing of the GOP is a crucial part of the party’s activist base.
"I want to make it really clear: Gay conservatives should feel comfortable to come to CPAC," Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, tells USA Today. "We don't have enough people in the center right to start excluding people from that coalition.”
Mr. Schlapp also notes that Republicans haven’t won a big presidential victory since 1988, and reaffirms the old William F. Buckley rule for presidential nominations: “Pick the most conservative person who can also win.”
CPAC will muster as much ethnic and racial diversity as it can, amid national demographic shifts that favor Democrats.
Organizers also say that the 41st annual CPAC aims to return the conference to its smaller, activist roots. Day One is devoted to an “activist boot camp.” A new staging format is designed to encourage more dialogue between speakers and the audience. Every speaker, including those who give speeches and don’t choose the 20-minute Q-and-A format, like Bush, will face questions from the audience.
Another sign of the times is the fact that the top two Republicans on Capitol Hill – Speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell – aren’t even coming to CPAC this year. Both said they’re too busy with their day jobs, especially as a clock winds down toward a possible partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security at midnight Friday.
But there’s also the unspoken fact that neither are all that popular among conservative activists. Last year, Senator McConnell raised eyebrows when he took the stage at CPAC and awkwardly held a gun aloft.