Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio's Coming Florida Showdown

By Drucker, David M. | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, June 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio's Coming Florida Showdown


Drucker, David M., Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


When the Republican presidential contenders show up in Florida Tuesday for an economic forum, voters better pay attention. They might not return any time soon.

Former two-term Gov. Jeb Bush, and incumbent first-term Sen. Marco Rubio are dominating the emerging battle for Florida. In the process, they appear to be crowding other candidates out of the primary. That only raises the stakes of the March 15 contest for Bush and Rubio, already locked in a quiet grudge match for supremacy.

"I don't think there's any upside at this point for anyone trying to compete in Florida other than Jeb and Marco," said Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, who oversaw the campaign of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

The matter is sensitive at this early stage. Neither Rubio's campaign nor Bush's political operation would comment for this story. Close allies only agreed to discuss the Florida primary on condition of anonymity. Bush, 62, and Rubio, 44, longtime associates going back to when the former was governor and the latter speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, prefer to downplay the obvious: the two Miami neighbors are now rivals headed toward a showdown.

Veteran Republican operatives believe one of them could be effectively knocked out of the 2016 race before Florida Republicans vote, either through underperforming in the four early-state nominating contests or in the Super Tuesday Southern primary on track for March 1. In that case, the survivor could win the Sunshine State's winner-take-all contest for 99 delegates without a fight. Conversely, he could find himself fending off confident challengers who decide Florida is worth risking their precious resources.

All sides agree that Bush has a financial advantage over Rubio. He is raising tens of millions of dollars through his political action committee and super PAC, both called Right to Rise. Bush supporters also claim broad ownership of Florida's Republican establishment of political operatives, consultants, strategists, fundraisers and elected officials, as well as grassroots activists and infrastructure, built over more than two decades going back to his first run for governor in 1994.

"There are a network of very loyal supporters of Jeb Bush that are clamoring for there to be an official campaign they can sign up for," said a Republican operative who would advise the governor's presidential bid. "The only candidate who could come into Florida and challenge him would be Marco Rubio...And, Jeb still has the upper hand."

Rubio allies are content to play the underdog, arguing that the senator has distinct political advantages. Rubio's Cuban heritage should boost him in Miami-Dade County, a key primary battleground. He was on the statewide ballot more recently -- 2010 for Rubio, 2002 for Bush -- and is more in sync with today's Tea Party-infused GOP. Presidential campaigns are often dictated by momentum, and Rubio partisans believe Bush has more to lose.

"I don't see how Jeb's not alive come Florida under any circumstance; in that case Florida becomes his Waterloo," said a Rubio backer who is active on the ground in state. "I'd rather be where Marco is than where Jeb is."

As both contenders focus on assembling a national organization and showering attention on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, activities on the home front have been less pronounced and taken place mostly behind the scenes. Bush and Rubio have been recruiting allies and communicating with existing supporters, preparing them to activate once the Florida race heats up. But that doesn't mean they've been dormant.

Bush and Rubio campaigned in Florida last month in events that could be interpreted as each trying to make inroads with the other's base. On May 18, Bush and Rep. Lincoln Diaz Balart, R-Fla., headlined a low-dollar fundraiser in Miami for the governor's PAC to connect with young Cuban Americans. The same day, Rubio was in northeast Florida, a Bush stronghold, to rally GOP activists to get out the vote in a key mayoral contest. …

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