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Jeb Bush on the trail: 5 things we learned

After more than a decade without campaigning, does Bush have the campaign skills he needs to win?
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush arrives at the Iowa Agriculture Summit, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush arrives at the Iowa Agriculture Summit, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—Jeb Bush has been assembling a juggernaut campaign-in-waiting that's all but set him up as the de facto frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. But there have been key questions looming: After more than a decade without campaigning, does Bush have the campaign skills he needs to win? And can he appeal to the conservative base voters who are such a major part of a nominating process that kicks off in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina?

Bush's first test came over the weekend, where he spent a full two days in almost every situation Iowa has to offer. He spoke at a fundraiser, made an unannounced appearance at a Hyvee supermarket (making a seasoned campaign move by tipping off only the Des Moines Register newspaper), fielded farm policy questions at an agriculture summit, met privately with activists and then made a traditional retail stop at a Pizza Ranch. Here's a look at what we learned:

He's embracing his family—but making reintroductions

Everywhere he went, Bush declared his love of Iowa and of his father, George H.W. Bush, who won the caucuses in 1980. His staff packed the rooms with people who'd supported his father and brother. But he highlighted the parts of his biography that make him different from his family, most notably his wife Columba, who he met in Mexico when he was 17. "I'm blessed with a great family, but I've been on my own journey as well, and a lot of people don't know that," Bush told the crowd of roughly 80 people who crammed into a back room at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids. Whether that breaks through will be a key test, though some seemed open to the idea. "I know he’s a little different than his brother, they’ve got different philosophies," said Robert Bice, who also met his father and brother and was also attending an event with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker over the weekend. "He’s projecting that image, that he’s his own man."

He's in to win

Bush is polishing his stump speech, a highlight reel of his conservative accomplishments as the former Florida governor. He's thought through careful answers to tough questions. He's more of a policy wonk than his outgoing older brother, George W. Bush, but he jumped straight in to the Iowa's traditional retail politicking. And he all but declared that he's officially running. "I'm heading back to Miami. Thanks for letting me come -- I'll see you back here a lot," he told the Pizza Ranch crowd. He also told them Republicans need to reach out to new voters. "It's the only way to win, for crying out loud," he said. "I mean, I want to win. I want our party to win."

He's finessing the "moderate"

Voters got a first glimpse of how Bush will get some rhetorical distance from positions that have gotten him in trouble with the conservative base voters that often drive Iowa's caucuses. At a Friday night fundraiser, a supporter of the Common Core education standards stood up to tell him to stand by his convictions. But Bush, who's been a Common Core proponent, steered away from a full rhetorical embrace. "What I'm for are higher standards, assessed faithfully so that we know where kids stand," he said. He spent far more time emphasizing that the federal government should stay out of education policy. "States that don't want to participate -- that's fine -- no big deal," he said. On immigration, he repeated his support for path to legal status but not citizenship for undocumented workers.

Related: DREAMers confront Jeb Bush on immigration

But he's staring down the gauntlet

Bush was prepared for the first round of questions on those difficult issues. But he'll face a lot more pressure over the course of the next year to flesh out his positions -- and when he was pressed this time, he showed flashes of irritation. After the Pizza Ranch event, Bush refused to say whether he would repeal the president's executive order that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay in the U.S. "We need to change the law," he said. Pressed on whether that meant he would reverse their protections in the meantime, he said, "No it means we need to change the law." Pressed again about his position on a potential path to citizenship, he instructed a Washington Post reporter: "Read my book."

"I've read your book," the reporter said. "Then read the book again," Bush responded, "because you misread that part."

He's largely looking past President Obama—and contrasting with Hillary Clinton

Criticizing President Obama is a favorite pastime for potential 2016 Republican hopefuls. But Bush's speeches all but left that out, focusing instead on his Iowa memories, his own biography and his conservative credentials. His main critique of the president focused on foreign policy and included implicit criticism of Hillary Clinton. "This president is the first president in the World War II era who does not believe that American power is a force for good in the world," he said. The U.S. needs to be "not pivoting, creating uncertainty." Bush also criticized Clinton's use of private email, telling Radio Iowa her response to the furor was "baffling." He and his campaign aides emphasized he would approach his own campaign, at least initially, in the opposite way from Clinton's current mode. "I intend to hang out with people, if I'm a candidate, and engage with them, and learn from them, and answer their questions," Bush told reporters Friday. "It's not going to be a bubble campaign."

Ben Mayer of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" contributed to this report.