In Iowa, Jeb Bush Works To Change One Mind At A Time

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Des Moines, Iowa -- A lot is riding on Jeb Bush’s maiden trip to Iowa this 2016 presidential campaign cycle. He comes to the state where Republican activists are skeptical about having another Bush in the White House and are even more skeptical about his positions that they deem too moderate.

“He’s not being accepted real well right now,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Family Leader and an influential leader among social and Christian conservatives in the early caucus state. “The reason is he comes on and says I’m going to run to the middle so I can win the general - that’s code word for surrender.”

While it’s still nearly 11 months before Iowans head to caucus sites to choose their favorite for the Republican presidential nominee, Bush is behind the pack in the polls here. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, he garnered only 10 percent support compared to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 25 percent.

But based on his schedule this weekend, Bush isn’t going to give up on the state. Understanding the difficulties he might face here, he released a web video titled “Conservative” just a day before he arrived that attempts to dispel any belief that he’s not conservative enough by detailing his record as governor. He also released an opinion piece Friday that explains his position on education, another issue he is viewed with contempt among some activists. Bush wrote that it's critical that "states take the lead" on education. One of his top advisers, David Kochel, is an Iowan who is also able to open doors for Bush in the state.

“I’m curious to see what he says."

He has a packed schedule this first go-round. He already started engaging in the face-to-face style of politics important to Iowa activists. He was the main draw at a fundraiser for Rep. David Young in Urbandale, a Des Moines suburb, Friday night where much of the sizeable crowd of around 100 was there to see Bush. The son of the 41st president told the crowd, “I’ve been to Iowa where my dad lost and I’ve been when he won. I like the winning part better to be honest with you." He added that he intends to come back “with regularity.”

Saturday morning he had some spare time so he spent it at a local grocery store meeting with Iowans.

At the the Iowa Ag Summit Saturday, forum where 900 attendees and a couple of hundred reporters gathered, Bush's performance was highly anticipated as he is one of 10 likely Republican presidential candidates to take questions from wealthy Republican mega donor and agriculture entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter.

Bush's Defining Himself

During his public appearances here, he is beginning to formulate the basis of his platform, addressing the issues that could cause him problems among conservative voters. On the topic of the summit, agriculture issues, Bush said he opposed labeling of Genetically Modified Foods but is inclined to support country of origin labeling. He said the Environmental Protection Agency has overreached, which is received loud applause from the crowd.

“The bar for success is very high for Jeb.”

Responding to a question from a supporter of Common Core Friday evening who is also on the school board and who congratulated him for not capitulating to conservative demands to oppose the education standards, Bush sidestepped her praise and refused to use the words “Common Core.” He did however say that states should have standards and that it’s a good thing that 45 states adopted the same standards that he says were higher than before. But in a nod to those who want the federal government out of education, he added: for states that “don’t want to participate, that’s fine. It’s a voluntary deal.”

While Bush is tip-toeing around the education issue he stood by his position that a path to legal residence is necessary for any plan to reform the immigration system, prompting the conservative website Drudge Report to create a headline that says "Jeb pushes amnesty...."

“We need to fix this broken immigration system,” Bush told the audience.

In a shortened version of what could become his stump speech on Friday, the former Florida governor described his record as one based on “conservative principles.” He touted vetoing more than 2700 line items in the state budget, greatly expanding the school voucher system, reducing the state government’s workforce by 13,000 and diminishing affirmative action.

Without naming her, he criticized potential challenger Hillary Clinton, saying the former secretary of State “has let us down” in the realm of national security and foreign policy.

The Curious And The Skeptical

Many people are attending these events to see Bush, wondering about the man who has two immediate family members who have been president.

“I’m curious to see what he says,” Gail Zimmerman said before Bush spoke Friday evening.

Bush received high marks after his speech for being able to talk fluently about the issues with substance.

Jeb Bush taking picture with attendee at a fundraiser for Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, in Urbandale, Iowa on March 6, 2015
Jeb Bush taking picture with attendee at a fundraiser for Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, in Urbandale, Iowa on March 6, 2015Leigh Ann Caldwell / NBC News

He didn’t unleash “the kind of demagoguery we often hear,” attendee Keith Luchtel said.

And that’s where Bush might have his biggest opening among issue-saavy Iowa voters: He talks with ease about complex issues.

Jeannie Waite, a nurse from Cedar Rapids who drive two hours to hear the likely presidential candidates speak, said she came to forum as one of those people “who didn’t want another Bush or Clinton.” After he spoke, however, she said she was “impressed.”

That’s what his supporters have been saying about Bush – that once people hear him explain himself, they will accept his positions and grow to like him.

He does, of course, have his supporters. Craig Lang, the former head of the Iowa Farm Bureau, said he’s a fan of “both Bushes,” referring to his brother and father. “I’m not Bush weary,” he said.

Jeff Kaufman, head of the Iowa Republican Party said that Bush has just as good of a chance as anyone to perform well in Iowa.

“This falls back on the strength of the Iowa caucus. Just like Carly Fiorina is going to have to take it straight to the people to increase her name recognition, he has an equal opportunity to be his own man,” Kaufman said.

With a famous name, Vander Plaats, whose coalition propelled social conservatives Rick Santorum to win the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and Mike Huckabee to win in 2008, said, “The bar for success is very high for Jeb.”

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