CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Since announcing on Facebook his plan to explore running for president, Jeb Bush has courted high-dollar donors in private rooms and luxury resorts, and delivered weighty speeches in hotel ballrooms and city clubs.
This weekend, he was at a Pizza Ranch.
The former Florida governor arrived in Cedar Rapids behind schedule, a sign as strong as any that he is, in fact, running for president. Looking a bit disheveled, with his open-collared shirt coming untucked, Bush took questions for more than 30 minutes at a location of the Iowa-based pizza chain that's as much a part of politics in the state as the caucuses themselves.
"Are you with me?" Bush said to one visitor, throwing his arm over the man's shoulder. Standing side by side and grinning, Bush said, "Ten years from now, I know at least two guys who are going to be 10 years older."
Bush appears certain to get into the 2016 race with an early and dominating lead in fundraising. He's hired some of the best talent in the Republican Party and earned generally solid reviews at the early "cattle calls" where White House prospects gather en masse to address party loyalists.
But he acknowledged this weekend that winning over his party will depend just as much on his success at working the room and posing for pictures. Viewed by many as the ultimate establishment Republican, thanks to his family ties, he set out to introduce himself to voters, one at a time, in the "retail" politics that defines the campaign for president in Iowa and the other early voting states.
"A lot of people know me as George's boy or Barbara's boy or W.'s brother," Bush said, referring to family who have already lived at the White House. "But I've been on my own journey as well, and a lot of people don't know that."
Other likely candidates have for months headlined county party dinners or fundraisers for local politicians, but this was Bush's first trip to Iowa since campaigning in 2000 for his brother. He'll return after some retail politicking in New Hampshire next weekend and South Carolina later this month.
At a fundraiser Friday night near Des Moines for Rep. David Young, Bush got some encouragement from Mary Ellen Miller, who lives in northern Iowa. "I applaud you for your support of Common Core," she said, imploring him to "keep on that topic."
Bush replied without calling the education standards developed in the states by name. Common Core has become a rallying cry for some conservatives against what they see as government overreach.
"I'm not going to back down on that," he told Miller, while offering an olive branch to any skeptical conservatives who might have been listening to their conversations. "What I can tell you is the federal government shouldn't be involved in this," he added.
Bush aides believe such question-and-answer settings will showcase his personality — they call it a blend of the "guy next door" and a deep-thinking policy geek — better than formal campaign appearances. In the series of speeches Bush gave on the economy, foreign policy and his fiscal record in Florida in February, aides groaned quietly that he often rushed through the text, impatiently running over natural breaks for applause.
Some of that was on his display this weekend at the agricultural policy forum hosted by Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa agribusiness magnate and GOP donor. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker drew more applause that Bush, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie earned more laughs.
But the crowd of roughly a thousand responded with silence when Bush, leaning forward in his chair, answered a question about immigration by saying those living in the U.S. illegally "need to have a path to legalized status."
"I don't know him very well, but immigration might be an issue I have a problem with," said Gene Brodrecht, a Republican from eastern Iowa at Saturday's forum.
To sell his message that higher education standards in individual states and a robust legal immigrant workforce are key to the nation's economic health, veteran Iowa strategist Doug Gross said Bush "has to say it over and over."
"I think he'd be making a mistake to kowtow," said Gross, a Bush supporter. "He needs to be who he is."
And there's no better place to do that than in one-on-one conversation.
"He's very down to earth," said Darcy Shaw, a Republican from central Iowa who met Bush at Friday's fundraiser. "He seems to be the personality he displays."
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