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Bob Sparks: Jeb Bush earns a respectable passing grade at CPAC

Florida’s most conservative Republican governor in history was about to speak before last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, MD. Despite a record few Republicans in any state could match, his appearance before a room full of conservatives was considered a road game. Between 2007 and 2015, he fell from grace among some of the brethren.

Speaking last Friday before Bush, radio talking head Laura Ingraham must have felt the entire audience detested Florida’s 43rd governor as much as she. She somehow thought it would be a good idea to garner laughs at the expense of former First Lady Columba Bush. The response from the audience was similar to that of a comedian who bombs in front of 15 people at Whittling Jake’s Road House on a Saturday night.

Bush finally took the stage later that afternoon before a standing-room-only crowd. Things were running late because cable superstar Phil Robertson had a lot to say and showed no signs of slowing down until CPAC organizers found creative ways to wrap him up.

How ironic that the junior member of what detractors like to call the “Bush Dynasty” was being kept in the Green Room by the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty.

Candidates could choose between 10 minutes of remarks and 10 minutes of questioning before the audience or take questions for 20 minutes. Bush chose the latter with talk radio and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity serving as the questioner.

This strategy (not “stategery;” Jeb is his own man) alone presented a clear sign that the former governor and his team are clever tacticians. Here’s why.

The Jeb! haters were poised to hoot at his presentation on the issues, especially immigration and Common Core. Those 10 minutes standing alone could have become ugly. The same people love Hannity and were not about to make things difficult for him.

Among the multitude were many wearing “I Stand With Rand” paraphernalia (though they were seated), “Run Ben Run” shirts and banners for Dr. Ben Carson, the “Cruz Crew” for Sen. Ted Cruz and other visible pledges of support for candidates.

Also among the crowd was a respectable number wearing “Jeb! 16” stickers. Somehow, the organized support for Bush was controversial.

Some conservative news outlets were apoplectic that the Bush team actually rounded up supporters from the region to witness his appearance, help counter the hostiles and hopefully vote in the well-known CPAC Straw Poll.

Again, the Bush team did what successful, organized campaigns do. The faux outrage seems to conveniently forget the ability of Ron and Rand Paul, the Paul Dynasty, to turn out people to attend CPAC and vote in the straw poll, including this year. The Pauls have won the straw polls every year seemingly since Herbert Hoover was in the White House.

Hannity pressed Bush on the issues, bringing up potentially uncomfortable previous statements. As he dealt with a few catcalls, Bush made his case for immigration reform.

He firmly agrees that securing the border is the top priority. Why leave the back door open for ISIL to enter and kill us?

What to do about the 11 million here illegally? Bush agrees with two-thirds of CPAC attendees that forcible deportation is not the best option. He did not talk about a pathway to citizenship, but envisions legal status for those obeying our laws and contributing to their community.

Even Bush will admit he still has work to do on the political biohazard known as Common Core. Among CPAC attendees, 57 percent responded they would “never” vote for a candidate that supports Common Core. Touting his conservative education record while governor might be the elixir he will need over time.

Hannity invited Bush to talk about his overall conservative record as governor. Many in the crowd heard details of his record for the first time. Yes, there was a group outside the ballroom trying to disrupt what was going on inside, but those in the hall at the beginning were more subdued at the end.

The candidate qualification deemed most important by CPAC attendees was having a “solid conservative record.” The second highest response was the ability to “appeal to independent voters.”

Next in order came “strong communication skills,” followed by “ability to win states Obama won,” and “previous executive experience.” Maybe that explains why those in the room may not necessarily have been eating out of his hand at the end, but they weren’t biting it, either.

CPAC was Bush’s FCAT. While he finished fifth in the straw poll, he exceeded expectations and earned a passing grade.

Others did well, too. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is now clearly in the upper tier with his second place finish behind Paul. Cruz and Carson were third and fourth, respectively. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is still received warmly at CPAC, had to be disappointed finishing behind Donald Trump and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Bush may not win the nomination, but what happened at CPAC is not good news for the Laura Ingrahams of the world. Following Bush’s appearance, I spotted a former member of the Florida Capital Press Corps (now a national reporter) and had to ask whether he had fond memories of Jeb the Liberal.

One smirk was worth a thousand words.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Written By

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at and Twitter @BobSparksFL.

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Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
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