WASHINGTON — When he first ran for public office, Jeb Bush dubbed himself a “head-banging conservative.”
Now he’s heading to a face-to-face meeting with conservatives, many of whom think he’s anything but one of them, and who would pose the biggest hurdle to him winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Bush will appear Friday before thousands of influential activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, a high-stakes appearance that could allow him to start winning their hearts — or underscore a tough road ahead.
One Florida activist predicted he’ll win them over. Others forecast a cool response.
Complaints about Bush date to his father, George H.W. Bush, who infuriated the right by breaking a pledge not to raise taxes. They had different complaints about his brother George W. Bush.
And although Jeb Bush pledges to be his “own man” and in two terms as Florida’s governor slashed taxes, staunchly opposed abortion and took on teachers unions, activists remain unconvinced. They point to his support for Common Core education standards, immigration and the Bush family record as stumbling blocks.
“I don’t know of any other potential candidate who is advocating for growing the government or for giving more power and responsibility to the federal government,” Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express, said of Jeb Bush. “He’s unique in that regard.”
For starters, conservative critics say, Bush has remained largely supportive of education standards that outline what students should know at each grade level, even after the benchmarks became a target for conservatives leery of the federal government.
They’ll be looking for Bush to “explain why the federal government has a better means of handling education and why it shouldn’t be left to the states,” Budowich said. “It’s going to be a tough sell.”
Bush, since announcing in December that he was considering a presidential run, has amassed a formidable array of well-heeled donors across the country and secured impressive hires in key primary states.
But conservative activists play an outsize role in many of those early states, and many months out, polls point to trouble. Just 4 percent of Iowa Republicans who described themselves as very conservative said they’d support Bush, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday. Asked to name a candidate they would definitely not support, they named Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the top of the enemies list.