The significance of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) recently held in a Washington suburb was what it revealed about how far the speakers were willing to go to establish their credentials for being there.
For most them, as purists in the conservative orthodoxy of smaller government, lower taxes, a strong defense policy and, above all, opposition to Obamacare and its presidential namesake, it was an effortless sales job.
The meaningless CPAC straw poll of attendees was again won, as in 2014, by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, more a libertarian than a conservative, and was a tribute to zeal of his followers, who previously had given the dubious honor to his like-minded father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
The son won 23.7 per cent to only 21.4 for the runner-up, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, best known for his union-bashing back home. He artfully dodged press questions on whether he approved of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani'scomment that President Obama "does not love America." Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the purest of them all, ran third, with others in the field of about 20 in single digits, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with only 8 percent.
Of all the prospective 2016 presidential aspirants subjecting themselves to the annual genuflection, Jeb Bush had the most demanding task, casting himself as a conservative true believer after serving eight years as a moderate-to-conservative former governor of Florida.
That record generated some boos from the audience, but he soldiered on, reciting his Florida performance in the most conservative light. For his trouble, he was rewarded with a dismal fifth place finish in the straw poll, with 8.3 percent. But the important point was that he survived the test with no serious gaffes that would haunt him in the race he seems certain now to run.
Nevertheless, the circumstances of his governorship -- as well as kinship to one Bush president who later turned off the faithful by raising taxes after explicitly vowing not to, and to another who launched a disastrous war -- remain problematical for many of the tea party faithful.
Beyond the Bush dynasty question, the party's more recent experience with Mitt Romney, a nominee whose conservative bona fides plagued him despite his almost pleading assurance that he was "severely conservative," clouds the prospect of enthusiastic Bush support from the GOP purists.
At the CPAC conference, Mr. Bush chose to accentuate the positive of his record as Florida governor, and appeared content to have gotten through this severely conservative event in one piece. He did not repeat earlier observations that he intends to be "my own man" as a presidential candidate. He had already stated at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in December that to win, a Republican candidate must be willing "to lose the primary (elections) to win the general, without violating your principles." He added that the incoming Republican Congress needed "to actually show in an adult-like way that we can govern, lead."
Asked then what were "the things you need to do to win a Republican nomination contrary to the things you need to do in a general election," Mr. Bush replied: "Well, frankly, no one really knows that because it hasn't been tried recently."
Those remarks suggested a dig at Mr. Romney, who was then also considering a 2016 race, and who was criticized in his 2012 presidential campaign for pandering to the Republican right to counter his reputation as a moderate as governor of Massachusetts.
The latest Bush aspirant to the Oval Office obviously intends to walk a more sophisticated middle road toward the nomination between now and next year, in the hope of avoiding the awkward comments Romney made that cast him with too many voters as a rich man's candidate disconnected from the hoi polloi.
As a fluent Spanish-speaker with a Hispanic wife, Jeb Bush could be his party's answer to capturing more of that growing voting bloc. But he also needs convince the tea party crowd to swallow him as well, and his CPAC showing suggests he yet has to make the sale.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.