HUDSON, N.H. — Jeb Bush, in his first political trip to New Hampshire in 15 years, introduced himself to voters on Friday in the first primary state with a firm demonstration that he plans to stick to his positions on immigration and education, polarizing subjects that separate him from the Republican Party’s activist base.
He also called for reinserting American troops in Iraq to fight the Islamic State at a “small force level.’’
“Hello everybody,” the former Florida governor said, climbing out of a white Suburban and confronting a gaggle of more than 40 reporters. They were his first public words uttered in New Hampshire since 2000, when he was campaigning for his brother.
As he toured a bioscience plant here, Bush spoke with workers in English and Spanish. He signed baseballs and a recent Time magazine that had him on the cover. And he seemed sheepish at times, leaning over to his host and saying, “I gotta get used to this.”
After the tour, he sat at a table and fielded the kind of questions that New Hampshire voters pride themselves on asking as they size up the candidates who believe they could be president.
Bush called his approach to fixing the nation’s immigration system, which some Republicans consider far too lenient on illegal immigrants, “the grown-up plan.”
“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, anything you propose is amnesty.’ But that’s not a plan,” Bush said. “That’s a sentiment perhaps. That’s not a plan.”
‘Anyone who’s ever been on a first date can relate to what he’s trying to do on this visit, which is to make a good first impression.’Fergus Cullen, prominent New Hampshire Republican
“Let’s let these folks achieve, earn legal status,” he added. “If we just keep people in the shadows, we’re not going to solve our immigration problem.”
He also defended his support of Common Core, the national education standards that have been pilloried by the Republican base. Several other candidates who once supported the standards have backed away from them or outright changed their position.
“Yes it’s controversial,” he said. “I’ve learned, though, that because something’s controversial … you don’t abandon your core beliefs. You go persuade people, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now, about why I’m for higher standards. … I think you need to be genuine. I think you need to have a backbone. I think you need to persuade people.”
Bush criticized President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, saying that the United States withdrew troops too soon from Iraq and needed to “reengage with some small force level” back in the country. He also said there should be a “protected zone” in northeast Syria, where international soldiers and Syrian rebels, combined with US air strikes, can help prepare for battle with the Islamic State.
“That would be, I think, the best way to do this,” he said.
Bush declined to say whether he would have signed the letter that 47 Republican senators sent to the leaders of Iran this week that declared any agreement the Obama administration negotiates to curtail a nuclear weapons program there could easily be reversed by the next president.
Bush’s first visit, which attracted heavy media attention because he is perceived as the party’s frontrunner, was an important early test in his quest to become the third member of his family to occupy the Oval Office.
“Anyone who’s ever been on a first date can relate to what he’s trying to do on this visit, which is to make a good first impression,” said Fergus Cullen, a prominent state Republican who hosted a house party so that about 100 people could mingle with Bush and ask him questions Friday in Dover.
Bush made his trip as campaign activity is heating up in New Hampshire. Texas Governor Rick Perry was concluding a trip Friday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz was scheduled to arrive Sunday, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also was making his first trip to New Hampshire on Friday.
Walker spent Friday meeting privately with several influential Republicans, including former governor John Sununu, Mayor Ted Gatsas of Manchester, and former Massachusetts US senator Scott Brown, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2014 US Senate race in New Hampshire.
On Saturday, Walker is planning to meet with Republican activists and county chairmen. His only public event is a grassroots training event in Concord, one in which local unions have been organizing protesters to greet Walker.
Republican presidential hopefuls have so far spent far more time in Iowa than New Hampshire. But the New Hampshire contest is critical for more establishment-minded Republicans like Bush, who could struggle to catch fire among the more conservative caucus-going crowd in Iowa.
The potential field is also larger and more volatile than it was in 2012, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had a strong hold on the lead in New Hampshire.
“I don’t think there’s a frontrunner, and I think people kind of like that,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican who advised Romney.
A Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm poll in February showed that Bush led among likely Republican primary voters, with 20 percent saying they’d vote for him compared with 13 percent for Walker, 12 percent for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, and 10 percent for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
But in one sign of vulnerability, he is third among independents, trailing behind Paul and Christie.
“New Hampshire is probably a much better fit for Jeb Bush than Iowa is. There’s a fairly strong pragmatic wing of the party that’s looking for a candidate who has a good shot at winning,” said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College. “This is a very important visit, if for no other reason it allows Jeb to introduce himself as Jeb — and not his father or his brother.”
Bush’s father and brother each lost in their first try at winning the New Hampshire primary.
Bush has almost no personal relationships to rely upon in New Hampshire. While other Republican presidential hopefuls sought any opportunity to head to the Granite State last year under the guise of endorsing or helping a candidate, Bush avoided it. Even when he held a fundraiser last year for Brown, it was held in Boston.
Bush hadn’t been to the state since January 2000 when he stumped for his brother George W. Bush’s campaign for the GOP nomination. Two weeks before the primary, the Bush campaign chartered a plane of 150 Floridians, who left a 75-degree day in Tallahassee and arrived in 4-degree Manchester.
At the time, Jeb Bush, in ski cap and black overcoat, went door to door, handing out mesh sacks of Florida oranges and telling people, “I’m Jeb Bush, and I want you to vote for my brother.”
In 2000, George W. Bush was criticized for traveling with big entourages and not doing enough one-on-one events. And on his visit Friday, Jeb Bush seemed intent on avoiding that mistake.
He traveled with a small entourage, and posted a photo of himself stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts (he confessed to putting a little cream in his coffee, a violation of his paleolithic diet).
At a packed house party in Dover on Friday night, Bush answered questions from voters for nearly 45 minutes, and then stayed to pose for photos and engage in lengthy conversations about immigration and community college education.
Bush said he did not support raising the federal minimum wage because he argues that it would hinder businesses from creating jobs. He said he supported repealing Obama’s health care law, and replacing it with new policies that include prohibiting health insurers from stopping coverage based on preexisting conditions.
He also urged Republicans in Congress to pass a federal budget and fully fund the Department of Homeland Security. “There’s a time for making a principled opposition to the president,” he said. “And then there’s a time to govern, and to lead. And Republicans need to start showing that we can govern and lead.’’