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In early states, Bush walks tightrope with conservatives

March 20, 2015

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (AP) — Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is betting his political future these days on the hope that pragmatism will trump conservative hostility in the contest for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination.

The tactic is a risky one for Bush, the son and brother of two former presidents who is heading toward an all-but-certain White House run of his own. The Republican Party’s most conservative voters wield considerable influence in the primary process, and candidates often veer to the right to clinch the nomination, even at the risk of espousing stances that could hurt them in the general election.

Bush, fresh off his first public tours of three key voting states, has settled on an early approach for dealing with skeptics on the right, casting himself as a practical but “principled conservative,” particularly when explaining his immigration and education positions that put him at odds with the Republican Party’s most conservative factions.

Bush often wraps his philosophy in scathing criticism of President Barack Obama. But his theme is clear: He wants to be the grown-up who ends the Washington “food fight” and governs to “fix things for everybody, not to win a political argument.”

“Washington needs principled, centered leadership, not leadership that tries to divide us,” Bush told Republicans in South Carolina on Wednesday. “It’s not always about winning and losing. It’s about forging consensus to solve some of these problems.”

His approach contrasts with many of his likely Republican competitors, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker among them, who take a more hard-line approach.

Although Bush has lately received the most attention, there is no heavy front-runner among a crowded field of Republicans contemplating a presidential run. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is the overwhelming favorite. Neither Bush nor Clinton has formally entered the race.

Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman who held a Bush event at his home last weekend, noted that some conservatives left the event disappointed, but that Bush “was not trying to be something he’s not.”

“He was not pandering,” Cullen said.

Bush has explained some of his stances first by contrasting them with Obama, then framing his argument as true to conservative priorities.

On immigration, he emphasizes border security and blasts Obama’s enforcement of existing law. Only then does Bush detail his own proposals, including a warning that “you can’t deport 11 million people” who are already in the country illegally. Instead, he wants to “give people a path to earned legal status over a long period of time.”

“Look, I’m pretty convinced that my views on this are the right views for sustained economic growth,” Bush said at a business breakfast in South Carolina. “If there’s a better idea, I’d like to hear it. But doing nothing? That’s not a plan.”

Some Republicans support comprehensive immigration reform as the party seeks to woo Hispanic voters, a growing constituency that has largely leaned Democratic. But other conservatives believe any solution that allows a pathway to citizenship amounts to amnesty for immigrants who entered the country illegally.

For his part, Walker has acknowledged changing his position on immigration. As early as 2002, he supported creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. In an interview with Fox News this month, Walker said he no longer supports “amnesty.”

Holding to the center in primaries often dominated by the right surely won’t make for easy sailing for Bush. His nuanced positions on touchy issues could give his rivals plenty of fodder.

For example, Cary Powell, a financial services executive in Myrtle Beach, liked Bush’s presentation but said he will have to “come up with some sound bites” to use on the debate stage, where he won’t have 10 minutes to detail his immigration position. “He’s got to have something to counter his opponents who will say, ‘amnesty, amnesty, amnesty,’” Powell said.

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Associated Press writers Bill Barrow and Steve Peoples contributed to this story.

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