MANCHESTER, N.H.—Jeb Bush refuses to return jabs from likely rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. He praises bipartisanship and stands by immigration and education policies opposed by his party’s conservative base.
It is a contrast with most other Republicans eyeing the White House, who are trying to show that their swords are drawn and ready to fight for the issues most important to the party’s activists and primary voters. Mr. Bush, on a swing through New Hampshire Thursday and Friday, continued to strike that more accommodating tone.
He declined to join Republican criticism of Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general. “I think presidents have the right to pick their teams in general,” Mr. Bush said at a gathering in a cabin in Concord. “This should not always be partisan.”
Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, both presidential candidates, oppose Ms. Lynch for saying Mr. Obama acted within his authority when he eased deportations for illegal immigrants, among other reasons.
Mr. Bush drew praise Friday from a liberal environmental group, NextGen Climate, for saying Friday he was “worried” about climate change and that the U.S. needs “to work with the rest of the world to reduce carbon emissions.”
And he refrained from drawing contrasts directly or even indirectly with other Republican 2016 contenders, telling an audience of business leaders Friday that he is “sick and tired of the political game where you push someone down to make yourself look better.”
More than a dozen Republicans likely to run in 2016 came to Nashua to address activists at a forum on Friday and Saturday. Many also appeared at more intimate gatherings—at diners, school classrooms and house parties, heeding the state’s tradition of retail politicking in the run-up to its first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, struggling to be viewed as a top 2016 contender, said in television and radio interviews that Mr. Bush’s momentum was slowing and that the former Florida governor hadn’t talked enough about foreign policy. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seeking a comeback from his failed 2012 bid, trumpeted his executive experience as superior to that of candidates from Capitol Hill.
In striking a less confrontational tone, Mr. Bush risks confirming the fear among some Republicans that he isn’t sufficiently steadfast in his conservative beliefs. When a 46-year-old Concord man Thursday night warned Mr. Bush that his support for legalizing undocumented immigrants would be a “tough sell,” Mr. Bush responded, “Well, that’s my job. My job is to not back down on my beliefs.”
Asked about Common Core, which many conservatives oppose as a form of government overreach, Mr. Bush argued that states need high standards to improve student achievement.
His refusal to back off those positions represents a gamble that Republican voters will credit him for conservative goals he pursued as Florida governor, such as pushing for school vouchers and tax cuts. Mr. Bush also has promoted a muscular foreign policy and has reliably criticized Mr. Obama’s leadership.
“Hopefully, you like some of the other things I said,” Mr. Bush told the Concord man who asked about immigration, Charles Pewitt, who responded to reporters: “He wants to fight on this issue, and I don’t think he’s going to win on this issue, but I do appreciate that he’s taking a solid stand and will not waver.”
“I don’t want a coronation on our side,” Republican attorney Lisa Mediano told Mr. Bush, who she fears isn’t conservative enough, at the Nashua forum. “I don’t see a coronation coming my way,” quipped Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush’s immigration and education policies are only part of his challenge in building support among the party base. He also needs to overcome resistance to a third Bush presidency amid a chorus of younger, fresher Republican voices.
“Jeb’s biggest challenge is his name,” said Juliana Bergeron, New Hampshire’s GOP national committeewoman. “We’re in eight years of Obama, and we had eight years of Clinton, and people are looking for change.”
Mr. Bush repeatedly addresses what he called “the dynasty thing” by saying he loves his father and brother but that he will “share his heart” so people will see he is his own man.