*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
HOUSTON — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made an impassioned and personal appeal here Wednesday to the Hispanic evangelicals whose support he hopes will make him a unique presidential prospect in a GOP field grappling with how to reach the growing voting bloc.
Stressing a biography filled with connections to the Spanish-speaking community, Bush took the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference on a tour of his gubernatorial record on education, meshing it with his broader message of his nascent 2016 campaign.
“We should have a country where it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter where you were born, it doesn’t matter if you have a vowel at the end of your name, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, it doesn’t matter the level of income of your family. Every American – every person in this country – should have a right to rise up, a right to pursue their own dreams,” Bush told an audience that included his parents, former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush.
Bush emphasized his efforts to overhaul the education system in Florida — especially for low-income students — by introducing school choice, grading schools on an A-F scale and providing more early-education opportunities. The initiatives, he said, ultimately helped close the achievement gap between Hispanic and white students in Florida, leading to record increases in high school graduation rates and the number of students going on to college.
While Bush’s remarks were centered on education, he received a warm reception while touching on more politically charged territory: his unapologetic support for giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal status. The position is viewed as anathema to some in his own party but was unambiguously cheered here.
“We’re a nation of immigrants,” Bush said. “This is not the time to abandon something that makes us special and unique.”
The United States, he added, “does not do well when people lurk in the shadows."
Those in the country illegally, Bush said, should pay a fine and work toward legal status over a period of time. He made reference to the “11 million people that should come out from the shadows and receive — earn — legal status,” quickly correcting himself on the idea that has divided the GOP.
The line — as well as several others praising the immigrant experience — was well-received by the friendly crowd inside a hotel ballroom here. But perhaps underscoring the outsize role foreign policy could play in the 2016 race, no line drew louder and longer applause than Bush’s call to re-establish a “stronger relationship with Israel.” A day earlier, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference unveiled a coalition geared toward showing support for Israel among Latino evangelicals.
It was on that subject — foreign policy – that Bush took his only shot of the speech at President Obama, saying the United States could be more involved in fighting religious persecution abroad.
“I believe this president has let us down in this regard,” Bush said, noting it was the “only political thing I’m going to say."
Bush’s remarks were otherwise laced with nods to his ties to the Latino community, most prominently his persistent courtship of the Mexican woman who is now his wife. The bilingual Bush frequently offered asides in Spanish, sometimes taking on the voices of Latinos whose stories he told. And as he began his speech, he cut to the chase about the “looming presence” of the other people in the room named Bush, a name that comes with ample political benefits – and liabilities – in modern politics.
“I love my parents,” Bush said, expressing some wariness about his “very intimidating” mother sitting in the audience.
Bush was introduced by the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, one of the most influential Hispanic evangelical leaders in the country. Rodriguez, who heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, left little doubt as to whether he thought the former Florida governor could carry the banner of Hispanic evangelicals in 2016.
“Jeb Bush is a blessing for our nation,” Rodriguez said. “He understands our community. He speaks the language. No, I mean, he literally speaks the language!”
Democrats were quick to pan Bush's appeal to the Hispanic community as inauthentic. During a trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Bush said he knows the "power of the immigrant experience because I live it each and every day," citing his bicultural family.
"Jeb Bush has never had to wait in line for a green card," Javier Gamboa, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said Wednesday in a statement. "He has never lived under the fear of being ripped from his family by deportation.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is expected to announce next week whether he is running for president, was scheduled to address the conference later Wednesday.