Election 2016: Jeb Bush makes his first Iowa foray

09:31 - Source: CNN
Jeb Bush challenged on immigration.
Des Moines, Iowa CNN —  

Jeb Bush told an Iowa audience Friday night that he was glad to be back in the Hawkeye State, where he spent so many hours helping his father campaign for president.

“Most of that time, at least the beginning of it, was right here in Iowa. And it was a blast,” he said while making his first 2016 trip to the state, which traditionally votes first in the presidential nominating process.

The visit is aimed to garner public support for an all-but-certain campaign that Bush has been sculpting behind the scenes with help from a vast network of donors and top political operatives.

He kicked off the weekend headlining a fundraiser Friday night for Rep. David Young, pitching a conservative record as the former two-term governor of Florida and, in true presidential fashion, dishing out affection for Iowa.

“I just love the state. I really had a good time,” he said. “And my dad won, which was a spectacular experience.”

His father, George H.W. Bush, won the Iowa caucuses in 1980 but failed to win the nomination and became Ronald Reagan’s running mate. He then famously lost the Iowa caucuses in 1988 despite going on to win the nomination and the presidency. .

“I’ve done it both ways,” Bush continued, finishing his thought. “I’ve been to Iowa when my dad lost, and when my dad won. I like the winning part better, to be honest with you.”

Bush promised the crowd, which was gathered at an agriculture museum in Urbandale, that he intends to “come back with regularity.”

In his remarks he addressed national security threats, saying President Barack Obama is “the first president since World War II who does not believe that American power is a force for good,” and took a shot at Hillary Clinton.

“There’s a lot of things we need to restore,” he said, talking about foreign policy. “This President – and by the way his former secretary of state – have let us down in this regard.”

He’ll further make his case to Iowans at an agriculture summit in Des Moines on Saturday, where he’ll be joined by other potential contenders.

Bush, who hasn’t run for public office since 2002, also plans to make campaign-style stops at two other events in the state, giving him a chance to practice his retail politicking skills in a place where activists expect to be personally courted by White House hopefuls.

He got started Friday night, working the room while taking selfies and greeting supporters, including a woman who said she was a 10th cousin to Bush, as a crush of reporters and cameras followed his every move.

One man asked him to sign the book “41” that his brother, former President George W. Bush, wrote about their father, the 41st president.

“And now signed by possibly someday ‘45’,” the man said, as Bush autographed the book.

The trip comes in the middle of a tour of early voting states for Bush. He traveled to Nevada on Monday and flies to New Hampshire and South Carolina next week, completing a two-week swing that hits the first four states in the presidential primary calendar.

Asked by the swarm about his busy travel schedule, Bush said the “one thing I miss is sleeping with my wife every night.”

“If I could fly home to Miami every night, that would be spectacular,” he added as he tried to push his way through the crowd.

Candidates face a grilling

In Iowa on Saturday, he joins about 10 potential presidential candidates in yet another cattle call for possible 2016 candidates, this time at an event focused on agricultural issues in the state.

Other featured speakers include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania,

READ: Poll: Scott Walker, Jeb Bush lead GOP field

Sen. Marco Rubio withdrew his name from the list earlier this week, citing logistical concerns because of a family wedding, while Sen. Rand Paul will be in Kentucky lobbying his state party to approve a plan that will let him run for president and his Senate seat at the same time.

Saturday’s gathering is the second large assembly of Republican contenders in Iowa this year, but it’s expected to be markedly different from the last one. That event, called the Freedom Summit, was hosted in January by Iowa Rep. Steve King and featured 10 hours of speeches that appealed to the party’s socially conservative and activist base.

At this event, each candidate will undergo a 20-minute Q&A with the event’s host, Bruce Rastetter, an agribusiness entrepreneur and Republican donor. The idea is to get the candidates talking about agriculture-specific issues — water quality, wind energy, the Renewable Fuel Standard — rather than provide a forum to rehash stump speeches and standard talking points.

“The goal is not to have a gotcha moment,” said GOP strategist Nick Ryan, who came up with the idea for the forum. “The goal is to have thoughtful conversation.”

Rastetter, in a separate interview, said agriculture-minded voters carry political weight not just in Iowa but nationwide. “Last I looked, every American eats every day, so all these issues are pretty important, and I think will stretch well beyond Iowa.”

Four years ago Rastetter publicly pushed for Christie to run for president, but he stressed Friday that he’s not backing anyone at the moment — and made that clear beforehand to the contenders he’ll question on Saturday.

“I think today we’re happy and excited that he’s going to be here, but the field is much broader,” he said, though he added that he thinks Christie “has a viable opportunity.”

Christie first needs to overcome some alarming poll numbers that show he has the lowest favorability rating among potential presidential candidates in the state, according to a recent Quinnipiac survey of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers.

Bush also has a long way to go. According to the same poll, he came in with 10% support in a hypothetical GOP contest, well behind Walker at 25% and closer to Paul (13%), Huckabee (11%) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (11%).

“I don’t think that they necessarily know who he is yet,” said Ryan of Bush. Ryan worked for Santorum in 2012 but hasn’t signed on with a contender this cycle.

Liabilities for Bush

“That’s up to him to overcome,” Ryan added. “But he has a little less than a year to focus on doing that through a lot of time in the state, meeting people and doing a lot of events.”

The tone and dialogue on issues will also be different at this summit. While the January event saw a bevy of speeches attacking Obama’s executive action on immigration, the audience at this event is more diverse, with many open to immigration reform given the agriculture industry’s dependence on migrant workers.

That could be a good sign for Bush, whose name was booed at the January event in part because of his more lenient stance on immigration.

Political observers will also be watching to see what Christie says about the issue. He has largely refused to talk about it, saying he doesn’t plan to discuss his stance until he’s a candidate.

Meanwhile Walker admitted recently that his “view has changed” on immigration, saying he no longer supports provisions that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States.

READ: Jeb Bush aides used private domain for public business

Walker was widely considered the breakout star at the last forum in Iowa, a wave of approval he’s still riding more than a month afterward, thanks in part to his strategy of attacking the media after he made controversial comments.

The Wisconsin governor, who first came onto the national political scene during his 2012 battle with public unions, received sky-high favorability ratings in the poll, with 57% saying they viewed him in a favorable light compared to 7% who didn’t.

Poll numbers this early rarely represent strong indicators of the final outcome of the nomination process, but they can provide a small window into the political climate at the time.

Trade and Common Core

Also up for discussion at the summit could be trade, in particular the President’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba and open up more trade opportunities, something farmers here are largely supportive of. Yet Bush has been loud and clear that he’s not in favor of lifting the embargo.

In another potential clash with Iowa Republicans, Bush has been a vocal advocate for Common Core, a set of testing standards reviled among conservatives, who view it as government overreach.

Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said it’s still possible for Bush to gather support from voters.

“He may not be able to convince them,” Hagle said. “But if he can at least blunt the anti-Bush enthusiasm, that helps and goes a long way.”

After the summit on Saturday, he attends two other events that will put him directly in contact with more Iowans, holding a private event at a local barbeque joint in Waukee and later participating in a meet and greet at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids.

CNN’s Steve Brusk contributed to this report.