DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In backing a pair of contentious religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas, Jeb Bush this week earned some cautious credit from politically influential evangelicals who say some conservatives are still leery of the former Florida governor.
That assessment didn't change, either, after Bush told a group of donors in California that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence could have taken a better approach to the politics of his state's law.
"I'm glad Gov. Bush did what he did in lending his support to religious liberty," said Steve Scheffler, a leading social conservative in Iowa and a member of the Republican National Committee.
In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday, Bush praised Pence for signing a bill aimed at giving heightened protections to businesses that object on religious grounds to providing certain services. Pence did "the right thing," Bush told Hewitt.
"This is really an important value for our country to, in a diverse country, where you can respect and be tolerant of people's lifestyles, but allow for people of faith to be able to exercise theirs," he said.
Most other members of the GOP's likely 2016 presidential field also strongly backed the Indiana law, but it prompted a national backlash from critics who said it would discriminate against gay people. It also drew widespread condemnation from business leaders and threats of boycotts.
Pence asked lawmakers to revise it, and on Thursday, they approved a new version that also bars discrimination based on several factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Lawmakers in Arkansas, having adopted a similar law earlier in the week, also made changes Thursday to win the support of their governor.
The night before the votes, while headlining a fundraiser in California, Bush appeared to critique Pence by saying a better approach "would have been the approach that is more consensus-oriented."
He pointing to a similar law in Utah, where opposing groups were involved before the law was enacted.
"There wasn't a bunch of yelling and screaming. That, to me, seems like a better approach to dealing with this," Bush said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by his aides.
"He offered additional detail, pointing to Utah and the value of a consensus approach," said Bush spokesman Tim Miller. "That said, his views on the need for protecting religious freedom haven't changed."
Several social conservatives, who make up a loyal bloc of Iowa's Republican caucusgoers, largely agreed.
"I would think these comments are going to cause people like me to see a level of maturity and backbone and understanding of the issue that is very heartening," said Chuck Hurley, vice president of Iowa's conservative Family Leader. "I think it's a positive thing for Bush in Iowa."
Bush faces skepticism from some on the party's right for his support of an immigration policy that would allow people in the country illegally to seek permanent lawful status. Many conservatives also don't like Bush's endorsement of Common Core education standards, voluntary guidelines in math, language arts and reading that are often described incorrectly as a federally mandated curriculum.
Tamara Scott, an Iowa Republican national committeewoman and vocal evangelical conservative, said that among conservatives who already have their doubts about Bush, his comments in California "will add to them." But others, she said, "will be pleased he's supporting the Indiana law."
Hurley and others said Bush might have been somewhat softer to the California audience because he had more time to think about the issue and was in a private event, not under the pressure of a timed radio interview.
"People have said we like the fight that we see in Gov. Scott Walker, and the fight we see in Sen. Ted Cruz," said Tim Head, executive director of the national Faith and Freedom Coalition. "But as it relates to Gov. Bush, I have encountered reasonable support, particularly now because the issue is so combustible."
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the conservative national Liberty Counsel, called the California language "a little odd," but added, "I agree with him."
Follow Thomas Beaumont on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/tombeaumont