02/27/2015 05:24 EST | Updated 04/29/2015 05:59 EDT

Booing Bush: Jeb hears from noisy critics on the right as he prepares 2016 bid

OXON HILL, Md. - The hostility to a potential Jeb Bush presidential run was evident everywhere at a conservative convention this week: the boos at the mere mention of his name, the trash-talking from firebrand radio hosts, and a few dozen people exiting in protest as he entered the room Friday.

There were some sarcastic cheers, and Bush acknowledged them.

"For those that made an, 'Ooooh,' sound, I'm marking you down as neutral," he joked during a question-and-answer session in front of more than 1,000 people.

"I'm hoping I'm your second choice."

Bush is expected to mount a fearsome challenge for the 2016 Republican nomination. Big-money donors are lining up for the ex-Florida governor and presidential son-and-brother, with loving attention being lavished upon him by the organs of the party's business wing like the Wall Street Journal.

But this isn't Wall Street.

This is the Conservative Political Action Conference — the annual gathering associated with Ronald Reagan's ascent in national politics in the 1970s and still billed today as the biggest annual gathering of the right-leaning grassroots army that will pound the pavement, knock on doors, and get out the vote on election day.

His perceived softness with this crowd is a reason polls put Bush far behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the early primary state of Iowa, and have them neck-and-neck in New Hampshire.

Bush ran through a laundry list of conservative credentials. And there are many. When he was governor of Florida he passed anti-abortion measures; ended affirmative action; signed numerous gun-rights laws; reduced the size of government; spearheaded charter schools; and cut taxes.

He reminded the crowd that he'd vetoed 2,500 spending items worth $2 billion as governor.

"They called me 'Veto Corleone,'" he joked. "No drunken sailors were around."

Canada got a mention as Bush discussed foreign policy. He critiqued an Obama presidency that he said had been soft on Islamic terrorism and tough on America's friends: "We've managed to mess up almost every relationship, when you think about it — including Canada, which is hard to do."

A few people in the crowd never got to hear that Canada shout-out. That's because dozens of supporters of other potential 2016 candidates made a point of walking out of the room as Bush took the stage.

Many booed or heckled, displaying an animosity not shown any of the other candidates.

Why all that antagonism from conservatives?

First, there's the lineage. Some complain about the dynastic feel of yet another Bush presidential run. New Jersey's Chris Christie called him the backroom-deal candidate. His name came up a half-dozen times while Christie was on stage, as he took questions from popular conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.

Ingraham devoted much of her own convention speech to Bush-bashing. She joked that he'd be so indistinguishable from rival Hillary Clinton that they could run on the same ticket — under the slogan "Clush 2016: What difference does it make?"

"How many of you are skeptical of another Bush?" the radio host asked the hundreds in the hall. More than two-thirds raised their hands.

"We need air in the room."

Then there are his policies. Bush gets criticized mainly on three fronts: for agreeing to the heresy that $1 in tax increases is acceptable in exchange for $10 in spending cuts, for his association with federal education standards, and especially for his stand on immigration. All three are anathema to large swaths of the party.

Bush has spoken with sympathy in the past for illegal immigrants. He delivers speeches in fluent Spanish. His wife is Mexican and they speak the language at home.

In that part-hostile room Friday, he struggled to speak the language of conservatives.

"I know there's disagreement here," Bush said. "The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status."