December 22, 2014


If Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both run for president, Florida loyalty belongs to Bush (Alex Leary and Adam C. Smith, 12/19/14, Tampa Bay Times)

But even if Rubio proceeds, mentor Bush presents major obstacles that underscore his status as the undisputed king of Florida Republicans. Bush would command the loyalty of top donors and the support of the political establishment.

Florida -- and its 29 electoral votes -- is essential to Republican hopes to retake the White House, and two candidates competing in the same space looks improbable.

"It's nothing against Marco," said John Thrasher, a former legislator who is now president of Florida State University. "Jeb has built up political capital over the years. It's not just capital. These are people who have worked with him, understand him, and feel his time is here."

Rubio, who at 43 is nearly two decades younger than Bush, enjoys loads of enthusiastic supporters among Florida's deep pool of elite GOP fundraisers, but few, if any, of those top bundlers prefer him over Bush. It's a simple fact of life for any Republican elected leader in Florida that even eight years after he left the governor's office, Bush overshadows all.

"I love Marco Rubio. I was his general campaign chairman when he ran for Senate," said Al Hoffman, a developer and former Republican National Committee finance chairman from North Palm Beach. "Marco is a great guy and has a tremendous future, but I have to support Jeb first."

"It's about loyalty. For so many of us who got into this game, you don't forget the one who brought us to the dance. Jeb and his dad and his brother did that for us," said Mike Hightower, another top fundraiser and former Duval County GOP chairman. "I'd say to Marco, 'Sorry, but on this one I can't help you. It's not personal.' "

Such comments were echoed by a string of veteran Florida GOP fundraisers, some of whom have been helping Jeb Bush since George H.W. Bush ran for president in 1980. Not everyone will say it publicly, but among these veterans, almost everyone sees Bush, 61, as a nearly insurmountable obstacle to Rubio raising sufficient money to mount a strong campaign.

"If I had to prognosticate, I would say that Marco would be running for Senate in 2016," said Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer and former Republican National Committee finance chairman who was a national finance co-chairman for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Rubio's current seat is up for re-election this next cycle, complicating his future more. He has time to explore a presidential run but ultimately cannot do both because of state law and will feel pressure from a battery of ambitious Republicans who would love to take his place in the Senate.

"Most people that do like them both would say something similar, that Marco's got lots of time to focus on being a good senator and if Jeb does definitely decide to run, we're going to be with him," said former Florida GOP chairman Van Poole, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for George W. Bush's campaigns.

A Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll of more than 150 of the state's most plugged-in political players conducted after Bush's big step toward running found that 8 in 10 said Bush would be stronger than Rubio in the Republican primary, and nine in 10 said the former governor would be stronger in the general election. [...]

On the morning Bush announced his plans to explore a run for president, he called Rubio. It was a sign of their friendship, forged years ago when Rubio was a baby-faced politician from West Miami. Aided by Bush and other key Republicans, including Al Cardenas, a lawyer and former chairman of the state GOP, Rubio quickly became a favorite son in Tallahassee.

If Mr. Rubio is serious about being president he needs to get himself elected governor.

Posted by at December 22, 2014 4:19 PM

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