Did Jeb Bush survive high-pressure CPAC appearance?

Did former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush impress the right-leaning crowd at CPAC, or did they boo him as a squishy RINO, a Republican-in-name-only? Or both?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pauses as he speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., Friday.

How did Jeb Bush do today in his big talk at the Conservative Political Action Conference? Did he impress the right-leaning crowd or did they boo him as a squishy RINO, a Republican-in-name-only, due to his past support for immigration reform and Common Core educational standards?

Well, there were some boos. As we wrote earlier, CPAC is a tough venue for Mr. Bush. It attracts an activist conservative audience, full of the kind of people who think Republican establishment figures Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner are sellouts because they don’t fight President Obama with every legislative weapon available.

There was even an audience walk-out, as predicted. A group gathered in the hall outside the auditorium and chanted something about “freedom” while Bush talked inside.

But we bet Jeb is happy with his appearance. It wasn’t as smooth as he probably would have liked, but he seemed forceful enough, and certainly more polished than his brother George W. did at the same point in his own presidential campaign.

Bush did not back down from key positions he knew would be unpopular with the crowd, particularly his support for some sort of pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants now in the country.

In perhaps the key moment of the appearance, he said bluntly, “The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status.”

This was met by a mix of boos, but many cheers. (Of course, it’s possible the cheers came from Bush supporters bused in for the occasion.)

Bush also defended his past support of Common Core standards. But interlocutor Sean Hannity helped him frame this in the context of his more conservative educational policies, including his support for the nation’s first statewide school choice law when he served as Florida governor.

And he tied both immigration and education back to the “Right to Rise,” the way of talking about economic growth that he’s clearly trying to make the theme of his early campaign.

“I believe that what we ought to be focused on is growing the economic pie and growing it a rate that looks more like the '80s in America . . . If we grow at 4 percent a year there’s enough for all,” said Bush.

On foreign policy questions, Bush seemed to have readier answers than the sitting governors who are GOP 2016 hopefuls, such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

“If I were one of the other 2016s right now, I’d be very worried about facing @JebBush on a debate stage,” tweeted Washington Post national political correspondent Karen Tumulty as Bush’s time concluded.

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