Bush will return to the conservative gathering Friday as one of his party’s leading possible presidential candidates — but one who still needs to find the right way to connect with the conservative activists who have not joined establishment donors in an early rush to back him…

Rather than mingling with friendly donors at receptions, as Bush has for the past couple of months, he will be asked Friday to address students and conservative hard-liners who have been known to boo speakers associated with the Republican Party’s elite.

“You give him credit for facing his critics and getting out of the bubble of fundraisers and policy speeches,” said Kellyanne Conway, who is managing CPAC’s straw poll. “I don’t think he’s necessarily entering hostile territory, but it’s a less natural habitat for him.”

Sen. Ted Cruz on Thursday warned activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference not to trust “squishy” moderates who talk about conservative principles but don’t have a record of activism — a veiled jab at likely presidential rivals such as Jeb Bush…

“We all know that in a campaign, every candidate comes up and tells you, ‘I’m the most conservative guy that’s ever lived,’ that’s just what they say,” Cruz said. “I’m pretty confident you haven’t seen any speakers come up yet to say, ‘I’m a squishy moderate who stands for nothing.’ … Every one of them will say, ‘You betcha, hoo diddly, I’m as conservative as all get-out.’”

Cruz, whose comments came in a speech and subsequent question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity, urged activists to “demand action, not talk.”

Jeb Bush is drawing contributions from Republicans who favor gay marriage and other causes at odds with the GOP base, signaling his potential appeal across a large swath of his party’s ideological spectrum but also potential challenges to winning his party’s presidential nomination.

Last week, the hosts of a Chicago fundraiser for Mr. Bush’s super PAC included supporters of citizenship for illegal immigrants and of gay marriage, a former gubernatorial candidate who has backed abortion rights, and a major Republican donor who had given money to then-Sen. Barack Obama as a rejection of the GOP’s right wing…

“I’m leaning toward Jeb, because he’s been very thoughtful in sticking to his guns on issues like immigration and Common Core,” said Mrs. Whitman, author of a book called “It’s My Party Too” that railed against the GOP’s right wing. “Right now, all of the other candidates are trying to figure how to placate the right.”…

“Jeb Bush says we need to embrace people who disagree with us, and that’s appealing,” said Mr. Brady.

What about Bush?

“Nope. Too squishy,” said Mike Potaski, 66, of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, said at the meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual speechathon and political rite taking place in Maryland near Washington, D.C.

“Way, way too squishy on immigration,” said Paul Schmutzler, 56, of Arlington, Va…

CPAC attendees said they were reluctant to back a prospective candidate they alternately described as too moderate, too bland and too vulnerable to Democratic attacks.

“There’s nothing really special about him but his name,” said University of Alabama student Daniel Ashford, 20.

Mr. Bush has vowed to run a “joyful” presidential campaign free from the seamier sides of party politics, projecting the air of a cerebral man almost effortlessly drawing together Republicans eager to help him seek the White House. But behind the scenes, he and his aides have pursued the nation’s top campaign donors, political operatives and policy experts with a relentlessness and, in the eyes of rivals, ruthlessness that can seem discordant with his upbeat tone.

Their message, according to dozens of interviews, is blunt: They want the top talent now, they have no interest in sharing it, and they will remember those signed on early — and, implicitly, those who did not. The aim is not just to position Mr. Bush as a formidable front-runner for the Republican nomination but also to rapidly lock up the highest-caliber figures in the Republican Party and elbow out rivals by making it all but impossible for them to assemble a high-octane campaign team…

In many cases, the donors, advisers and operatives he is targeting possess a web of deep connections to the Bush family, through the presidential campaigns and administrations of Mr. Bush’s father and brother, making it difficult to say no.

To a greater degree than his rivals, Mr. Bush can call upon their loyalty, if not their passion, in building his organization. But the approach risks giving Mr. Bush’s emerging campaign a reputation for entitlement, a potential problem for a candidate who already appears distant from his party’s grass roots.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is not scheduled to appear here at CPAC until Friday, but there is already a movement underway to stage an informal protest when he hits the stage.

William Temple, a member of the Golden Isle Tea Party, told The Washington Times that the party’s doesn’t need another Bush in office and said that the party should listen to the grassroots activists that helped fuel their gains in the 2014 election.

“A lot of peoples were not going to come here because they heard Jeb Bush was speaking,” Mr. Temple said, before laying out his plan at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“We are going to get up in mass, and we are going to walk out on him,” the 64-year-old said. “We are not going to interrupt anyone’s speech, but we are all going to exercise our right to the bathroom at the same time.”

The former Florida governor, still in the preliminary phase of an expected White House bid, plans to reward his biggest early financial backers with a mid-April meeting in Miami with his likely campaign team.

The confab is being organized for so-called bundlers who have “met or exceeded” their fundraising targets, according to an email circulated by Mr. Bush’s finance team. Heather Larrison, who runs his fundraising effort, told a group in Washington last week that the event would take place on April 13, a person present said…

The Bush team is asking fundraisers who want to join the campaign’s National Executive Committee, the top tier for prospective donors, to collect $500,000 by the end of March. But many veteran Republican donors expect it will cost significantly more to reach the inner circle of an expected Bush campaign because deep-pocketed donors have been so eager to write big checks.

“I don’t know of any other potential candidate who is advocating for growing the government or for giving more power and responsibility to the federal government,” Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express, said of Jeb Bush. “He’s unique in that regard.”

For starters, conservative critics say, Bush has remained largely supportive of education standards that outline what students should know at each grade level, even after the benchmarks became a target for conservatives leery of the federal government.

They’ll be looking for Bush to “explain why the federal government has a better means of handling education and why it shouldn’t be left to the states,” Budowich said. “It’s going to be a tough sell.”

This level-headed pragmatism has earned Bush plenty of enemies on the GOP’s far right, which has hijacked the party in the post-Reagan era and yanked it further from the center where presidential elections are won or lost.

For all their current success—controlling both the House and Senate (thanks to gerrymandering and two-thirds of the electorate staying home last November)—Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The one national vote they did win, Bush’s 2004 defeat of John Kerry, had a margin of just 2.4 points. The GOP needs to end its quadrennial flirtation with inexperienced right-wingers who have no hope of winning 270 electoral votes—Santorum and Cain in 2012, Cruz, et al now—and find an experienced, mainstream guy with a marketable track record. Instead they’re about to engage in another round of fratricide and brand Jeb Bush the enemy because he’d accept a dime in taxes for a dollar in cuts. Crazy.

For more reasonable conservatives, however, it’s easy to see the economic attraction in Bush. Beyond the steady tax cuts, he slashed red tape, reduced the state payroll 6.6% and vetoed more than $2 billion in new spending initiatives. Florida’s rainy day fund, $1.3 billion when he was sworn in, swelled to nearly $10 billion when he left. Credit markets were pleased, giving the sunshine state its first ever Triple-A rating. It was all part of an ambitious conservative agenda full of what Bush called “big, hairy, audacious goals,” — or “BHAGs.”

Yet, his polling numbers are anemic. The average from Real Clear Politics (RCP) shows Bush pulling in just 14 percent nationwide. In New Hampshire, RCP finds him with 16 percent, and 12 percent in Iowa. One might dismiss these figures, considering how early we are in the cycle. But Jeb (“John Ellis Bush”) is a Bush — and Bushes have been running for national office for nearly 40 years. Republican voters know who he is, and have a pretty good idea of what he stands for. Yet they are not jumping on board, at least not yet…

Meanwhile, the broader GOP electorate seems wary, at best. At this point in the 2000 cycle, George W. Bush was polling upwards of 40 percent nationwide. By the end of 1999 it would rise to 60 percent. According to RCP, Jeb currently is clocking in under 15 percent — even though he is at least as well known now as his brother was in early 1999. There is clearly a hesitancy among the rest of the party — i.e. those who do not draw a living from politics — for a Bush restoration…

Jeb certainly looks to be cornering the market on the modern variety of professional Republicans, but he too will have to do more. What is the case for a Bush restoration, beyond the fact that it would make the professional GOP comfortable once again? Why should average Republican primary voters  — the insurance salesmen and truck drivers, not pollsters and policy advisors — choose Jeb over Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, or the dozen other potential nominees? Jeb will have to make a very persuasive argument on this front. He will face tougher competition than his brother did in 2000. Indeed, 2016 could see the most competitive GOP primary since 1980. 

“If the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the president will be, then he is definitely the front-runner.”