Politics

In Marco Rubio vs. Jeb Bush fight, will other GOP candidates compete in Florida’s March 15 primary?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks during the Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit held at the Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center on Tuesday in Orlando, Florida.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks during the Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit held at the Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Convention Center on Tuesday in Orlando, Florida. Getty Images

Leave it to Florida to host the best political soap opera of the presidential campaign.

The mega-state that all but delivered the Republican nomination to Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 likely won’t reprise that role again because as many as two dozen states will weigh in before Florida. But the March 15 Sunshine State primary is shaping up as potentially spectacular theater nonetheless.

Jeb Bush versus Marco Rubio.

Two Florida favorite sons, longtime friends, mentor and protégé, near neighbors in Miami-Dade facing off in America’s most important battleground state. What many viewed as almost unthinkable a few months ago — Rubio beating Bush among Florida Republicans — no longer seems far-fetched.

Other leading candidates already are pondering whether even to compete in Florida’s primary.

“I don’t think there’s a state out there we wouldn’t play in — other than maybe Florida, where Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are in some of the polls essentially tied, and they are going to eat up a good amount of that financial advantage that Gov. Bush is going to have,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show last week.

He changed his tune this week during Gov. Rick Scott’s “economic summit” in Orlando, saying he might compete in the 2016 Florida presidential primary. “If I didn’t think I could compete, I wouldn’t be here,” Walker told reporters.

The summit featured presidential prospects Bush; Govs. Walker, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who now lives in Florida’s Panhandle. Rubio, in Washington Tuesday voting on a revised version of the Patriot Act, sent a short video to the gathering.

That so many candidates would commit to a forum hundreds of miles away from early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire is testament to Florida’s lofty status as a critical battleground and fundraising mecca. But Florida is treading on new ground this election cycle in fielding two front-runners for the GOP nomination and deciding for the first time in several cycles against holding one of the earliest primaries in the country.

TIMING

In 2008 and 2012, state Republican leaders blatantly defied national party rules by holding earlier-than-allowed primaries, arguing that the country’s biggest and most diverse battleground state deserved more say in picking the major party nominees. The Republican National Committee responded by cutting in half the number of delegates, but that didn’t stop the leading candidates from campaigning ferociously in Florida.

This year, with Bush looking increasingly likely to run, Republican legislative leaders chose not to risk losing Sunshine State delegates. Ultimately it takes about 1,235 delegates to win the nomination.

Florida legislators earlier this year scheduled the primary for March 15, the earliest date in which a state can hold a “winner-take-all” primary. That means whoever wins the primary would win all 99 of Florida’s delegates. Another candidate could spend millions, fall just behind the winner, and walk away with zero delegates.

At the time that was widely seen as a gift to Bush. Now, with Rubio off to a strong early start and Bush struggling to generate widespread excitement with the base of the party, it’s not so clear.

“The winner-take-all primary was a very good thing for Jeb — before Marco got in,” said Ana Navarro, a Bush supporter in Miami who is friendly with both. “When people, including me, were calling their legislators, telling them to make it winner-take-all, we were all still under the mistaken impression that Marco wasn’t going to run.”

The cost of campaigning in winner-take-all Florida provides a significant incentive for candidates to focus their efforts elsewhere. But that’s a risk, too.

“Tactically, looking past Florida could make sense to some of the other candidates not named Jeb or Marco,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “But Florida, as a major swing state, is still an important test for any candidacy looking to make an argument that you can win a general. It puts a lot of pressure on a campaign to really perform in Ohio and the other contests.”

Eight months is an eternity in presidential politics, and the landscape is likely to look far different by the time any actual voting begins next year. Former 2012 Republican front-runners Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich can attest to how quickly the ground can shift.

Making it even harder for 2016 candidates to decide whether to spend time and money in Florida is the prevalence of early voting. Florida’s primary may be in mid-March, but half the votes will be cast by then. Overseas absentee ballots start going out by Jan. 30 — before Iowa voters cast a single vote — and in-state mail ballots are sent starting Feb. 9.

SHORTER SEASON

Not only should Florida’s primary feel different from its recent contests, but so should the entire primary season.

Party leaders concluded that the protracted and contentious 2012 primary season put Mitt Romney at a disadvantage heading into the general election. The mandate for 2016 was fewer debates and a shorter primary season. Rather than a late August nominating convention like Tampa hosted, the 2016 convention will be July 18-21 in Cleveland.

The season is expected to kick off in February, rather than January. And after the initial four states cast their votes, the campaign for the nomination is likely to be defined by a series of election days featuring multiple states voting.

Come March 15, Florida probably will share the stage with Ohio, Missouri and Illinois.

“It’s not going to be longer, it’s going to be more intense,” Sean Spicer, communications director for the RNC, said of the 2016 nominating season.

Florida won’t be the first big prize after the earliest contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, as it was in the last two presidential elections. By March 15, at least 20 states will have voted and probably half of all the available delegates awarded. March 1 is expected to serve as a Southern primary with half a dozen or so states voting.

All those pre-Florida states, however, will allocate their delegates proportionally rather than winner-take-all, which means no candidate may have a big lead in delegates by March 15.

Another huge question for 2016? Money versus momentum. The advent of political committees accepting unlimited contributions and billionaires bankrolling campaigns has knocked aside some of the old assumptions about presidential campaigns and made it easier for candidates to keep pushing ahead into state after state.

“In the past, if you couldn’t raise money, couldn’t raise enough donations of $2,500 or less, that told you something politically,” said Republican strategist John Weaver, another veteran of several presidential campaigns. “Now you only need one person to back you up and you can go deep into the calendar whether you deserve to or not politically.”

Bush is expected to have a vast fundraising advantage over the rest of the field, which means he likely would have the resources for a long slog of a campaign. Even an unlimited campaign account is not necessarily enough to overcome a string of losses, however.

Rubio has at least two billionaires, Oracle founder Larry Ellison of California and auto dealer and former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman of Miami, supporting his campaign.

Miami Herald political reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this story.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

GOP primary dates

The 2016 primary calendar is in constant flux and will remain so for months, but Republican campaign officials say the rough, tentative schedule leading to Florida is shaping up along these lines:

Feb. 1: Iowa

Feb. 9: New Hampshire

Feb. 20: South Carolina

Feb. 23: Nevada

March 1: Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota, possibly Alabama, Wyoming, Virginia

March 5: Kansas, Louisiana, possibly Washington State

March 8: Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, possibly North Carolina and American Samoa

March 12: Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico

March 15: Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, possibly Northern Mariana Islands

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