NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Jake Mansoor came to the Conservative Political Action Conference this week without a candidate for 2016. After Friday, Mansoor, a 20-year-old student from the University of Chicago, has his answer: Jeb Bush.
"He straddles the center. He's gotten a lot of flack for being too liberal. But he really addressed all those concerns," Mansoor told Fusion.
It was hardly a coronation for Bush at the biggest conservative confab of the year, but his presence at the conference and message won over some of the skeptics among his base.
Well before Bush was scheduled to speak on stage in the main ballroom of the convention center, young supporters of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) were preparing to send him a message. Led by Georgia Tea Party activist William Temple (pictured below), they were planning to walk out of Bush's question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Temple, who is from Bushwick, Georgia, told Fusion he targeted Bush's speech for a walkout weeks ago, when he saw his name pop up on the list of speakers at CPAC.
Miraal Chhelavda, the founder of the Young Americans for Liberty's chapter at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, was one of the young supporters of Temple's effort. He told Fusion before Bush's time slot that he expected at least 100 young people to walk out of the speech.
"The establishment has Jeb as a frontrunner, and they think he should be leading us and our future," Chhelavda said. "I think us, as millennials, we have a lot more at stake. I think our voices matter."
(Photo: Brett LoGiurato/Fusion)
When Bush came to the stage, the smattering of boos was evident. But supporters droned out hecklers at various points in the speech, and Bush's message on key issues for which he is routinely criticized—immigration and the Common Core education standards—was well-received with the crowd.
"There are a lot of people who are conservative that don’t know they are conservative," Bush told the crowd. "If we share our enthusiasm and love for our country and belief in our philosophy, we will be able to get Latinos and young people, and other people that you need to move to victory."
That was one of several applause lines for Bush. The walkout, meanwhile, never really materialized into much more than a "trickle out." But those who did walk out held an impromptu rally in the convention halls.
But some young people, like Mansoor and friends Mike Vasiliou, 20, and Sean Morrisey, 19, didn't follow along. They stayed and listened to Bush, and they believed he answered every question conservatives have about him.
"I think that we kind of really witnessed a change in terms of his relationship with the base," Mansoor told Fusion. "It was tremendously interesting to see him come into mixed reaction—there were a lot of boos—and to see after he addressed the questions Sean Hannity asked him. Those were the questions on everybody's mind."
On immigration, especially, Bush was clear and forceful. He defended two initiatives he supported as governor that did not pass into law—providing drivers' licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Bush was quick to note that Florida's "conservative legislature" and a "conservative" governor, Rick Scott, recently passed and signed an in-state tuition bill.
He threw some red meat to the conservative base, brandishing President Obama's executive actions as illegal and saying he believes federal courts will end up overturning the orders. But he was also clear about the need for reform—there is no plan, he said, to deport more than 11 million people who are here and undocumented.
"I know there is disagreement here," Bush said, later joking that he would put hecklers booing in the "neutral" column.
"The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status where they work and they don’t receive government benefits."
It was a line that resonated with his new college supporters.
"He started out with boos," Vasiliou said, "and then halfway through people were clapping over and over for every point he made. Common Core and immigration were the two sticking points—and he handled them masterfully."
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.