In Iowa, Jeb Bush Risks Support With Unpopular Stances

Source: By JONATHAN MARTIN and TRIP GABRIEL, New York Times • Posted: Monday, March 9, 2015

Jeb Bush at the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit on Saturday in Des Moines. CreditCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press 

DES MOINES —  Jeb Bush made his Iowa debut as a likely presidential candidate by reiterating his support for two issues unpopular with conservative activists and announcing his opposition to a pair of federal benefits prized by industry here, a risky wager in the state that kicks off the nomination process.

It was a sign that Mr. Bush, who has established himself as a formidable fund-raiser but faces skepticism from the Republican base, would rather challenge his party’s grass roots and elites here than retreat from his views in a way that could open him to charges of pandering.

Appearing Friday at a fund-raiser for a local congressman, Mr. Bush said he would not back off his support of the Common Core education standards, which have become identified with President Obama and are deeply unpopular among conservatives.

“I know what I believe,” Mr. Bush said, by point of contrast. “I believe in high standards that require critical thinking skills that are assessed faithfully, where you have reform around it so that we have rising student achievement. And I’m passionate about it.”

On Saturday, Mr. Bush took the stage at an agricultural forum here and restated his support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, another position on which he stands in opposition to the Republican base.

Outlining his plan to offer illegal immigrants a path to legal status, the former Florida governor said, “This is the only serious, thoughtful way to deal with this, and we better start doing it because this is a competitive world.”

Just hours after Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa opened the gathering by exclaiming, “Don’t mess with the R.F.S.!” Mr. Bush said that both the Renewable Fuel Standard and the wind production tax credit eventually should be eliminated.

Both federal subsidies enjoy significant support among Iowa’s political and industry leaders; the latter group underwrote the event where Mr. Bush outlined his views.

Mr. Bush, on both days in the state, fondly recalled the time he spent here working for his father’s successful 1980 caucus campaign, extolling Iowa’s farm-raised pork and beef as well as its hog farmer turned senior senator, Charles E. Grassley.

Mr. Bush also criticized Mr. Obama, to the appreciation of his partisan audiences.

But Mr. Bush’s willingness to stake out positions contrary to the views of many Republicans here represented the most unmistakable illustration yet of his vow “to lose the primary to win the general” — that is, to risk losing the Republican nomination in order to be a stronger candidate against the Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential race.

Mr. Bush begins his Iowa campaign with many Republicans viewing him warily.

Quinnipiac poll late last month showed nearly as many likely Republican caucus goers viewed him unfavorably as they did favorably, and he was well behind Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the early Iowa front-runner.

In June 1999, shortly after the then-Texas governor made his first campaign stop here, a poll by The Des Moines Register showed him leading 40 percent to 13 percent over his nearest competitor.

There was a far smaller chasm then between the Republican donor class and its grass roots, both of which viewed George W. Bush favorably in Iowa and beyond.

“It’s probably more conservative now; there’s a more vocal libertarian-type attitude,” said former Representative Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican who left office this year

Such attitudes were on display Saturday, when many in the audience — some with ties to the agricultural industry, which ostensibly favors immigration overhaul — applauded the Republican presidential hopefuls who denounced illegal immigration and talked tough about limiting welfare benefits.

The gathering, which featured as many as nine potential White House prospects, was the latest in a series of increasingly frequent Republican candidate forums around country staged by individuals and interest groups. The event, the first of its kind, was held in a hall on the state fairgrounds and had the feel more of a presidential primary debate than a weekend candidate forum.

Sponsored by an array of agricultural interests, the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit, as it was branded on a pair of huge flat-screens above the stage, drew more than 200 members of the news media and about 1,000 Iowans. A 16-foot camera jib swept across the room to record the spectacle.

The candidates — answering a similar menu of questions for about 20 minutes each from Bruce Rastetter, a prominent Iowa agricultural executive and Republican donor — did not criticize one another by name. But there were differences on policy, and Mr. Walker took a thinly veiled shot at Mr. Bush, saying: “I’m not a supporter of amnesty. I know there are some out there.”

Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Walker also indicated a willingness to, as he put it, “go forward” with the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that biofuels such as corn-derived ethanol be mixed in gasoline.

Mr. Walker has acknowledged that he has changed his mind on immigration, and his support of the fuel standard is a departure from his earlier view in opposition to “mandates from the state or federal government” regarding the use of ethanol in gasoline.

Both shifts bring him more in line with Iowa voters and contributors.

Mr. Branstad would not say if Mr. Bush’s position on the fuel standard would hurt his prospects in the caucus, but the governor suggested Mr. Bush was out of the state’s mainstream on the issue.

“I’m a strong supporter of the Renewable Fuel Standard, as is Senator Grassley, as is really our entire congressional delegation,” Mr. Branstad said in an interview. “I think it tells you kind of how we feel about that issue here in Iowa.”

What remains to be seen is just how Mr. Bush feels about Iowa.

He told reporters on Friday night that he intended to return to Iowa regularly, but he and his advisers are mindful about keeping expectations low here.

And they know that taking a few unpopular stances here will only help that effort.