Likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush made his formal debut at the Georgia statehouse Thursday, where he waded into a few of the thornier policy debates facing state legislators.
The former Florida governor spoke briefly to the House and Senate chambers about the need for broader education reforms that give parents a greater choice in schools. And he met with Gov. Nathan Deal, who is backing a plan to give the state broad new powers to intervene in struggling schools.
In remarks to a handful of reporters, Bush also gave a tacit endorsement to the push for a "religious liberty" measure. Supporters say the legislation, Senate Bill 129, would provide an extra layer of protection against government intrusion on religious rights, while opponents see it as a "license to discriminate."
"I don't know about this law, but religious freedom is a serious issue and is increasingly so," said Bush. "People that act on their conscience shouldn't be discriminated against, for sure. There should be protections."
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, he said, would "automatically shift the focus to people of conscience" who may not want to provide services for a gay marriage.
"People have a right to do that, just as we need to be respectful for people who are in long-term committed relationships," said Bush. "Sorting that out is important." He also said a medical marijuana measure, if limited to those with unique illnesses, "is more than appropriate."
An effort to legalize medical marijuana failed to pass last year's legislative session amid infighting between Republican lawmakers, and competing measures are pending again this year. Bush said if he decides to run he would offer a "hopeful and optimistic message about fixing some big, complex things" that would appeal to independents who "actually decide who the president will be."
He could face a particularly tough battle in Georgia, where his more moderate stances on immigration and the Common Core education standards could clash with a conservative strain of GOP politics that dominates in Georgia. Ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the state's presidential primary in 2008, and native son Newt Gingrich carried Georgia in 2012.
In his remarks, Bush dismissed talk that he wasn't conservative enough to win the party's nomination. Said Bush:
"I'm the most conservative governor in Florida's history. I cut taxes every year. I reduced the state government workforce by 13,000. We took on the trial bar, the teachers' unions - all the groups that wanted to protect the status quo … I've got a record I can run on that shows how conservative principles applied the right way gives everybody a chance to be successful. We need to move beyond the rhetorical flourish, if you will, and start focusing on what kind of skills are required to lead the country by fixing these problems. I've got a record to run on. I'm not embarrassed about it, and I'm not going to change who I am. That's a loser, too."
Ludacris sadly did not advise Bush to "throw them bows" in a GOP primary, nor did he reveal how to appeal to female voters in different area codes. But he did offer a quasi-endorsement. As Ludacris was leaving the Capitol, he was asked which Bush is his favorite.
His response: "The one outside."