What will Marco Rubio do? Jeb Bush’s 2016 announcement puts pressure on Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio casts his ballot at the West Dade Regional Library in Miami during the first day of early voting in October.
Sen. Marco Rubio casts his ballot at the West Dade Regional Library in Miami during the first day of early voting in October. EL NUEVO HERALD

Jeb Bush has complicated Marco Rubio’s political future. Or maybe not.

It all depends on whom you ask.

With former Florida Gov. Bush announcing Tuesday that he’s formally exploring a 2016 Republican presidential run, pressure is building on U.S. Sen. Rubio to decide whether he’ll campaign for the White House.

Rubio, 43, once appeared a shoo-in contender for the presidency. But that was before the prospect of having to compete against the 61-year-old Bush, Rubio’s longtime mentor.

“I’m trying to figure it out,” Rubio said last week when asked about his intentions. He made sure to say he considers Bush a “friend.”

The fates of the two men, who live about two miles apart as the crow flies (Bush in Coral Gables and Rubio in West Miami), appear to be intertwined: They share many of the same supporters and financial donors, at least in Florida.

One of them, Remedios Diaz-Oliver of Miami, has ties with Bush that date back to his father’s 1988 presidential election. She served as that campaign’s national Hispanic co-chair.

“If they both run,” she said Tuesday, referring to Bush and Rubio, “I will have to make my choice — and I’ve worked for so many years for Jeb Bush that it’s not going to be difficult.”

Diaz-Oliver noted, though, that it’s too early for contributors to pick sides. She called Rubio “an extraordinary leader.” “They would both make us proud,” she said.

Rubio’s plans won’t be influenced by Bush’s strategy, a spokesman for the senator maintained Tuesday.

“Marco has a lot of respect for Governor Bush, and believes he would be a formidable candidate,” Alex Conant said in a statement. “However, Marco’s decision on whether to run for President or re-election will be based on where he can best achieve his agenda to restore the American Dream — not on who else might be running.”

Bush appears far more popular than Rubio, according to recent polls. A national McClatchy-Marist survey released Monday found former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney leading the field with 19 percent support. Bush placed second, with 14 percent. Rubio drew only 5 percent.

Earlier this month, an online-only survey of Florida voters by Saint Leo University Polling Institute indicated Bush would easily defeat other Republicans in a primary and would be the only one to marginally lead Democrat Hillary Clinton in a possible general-election match up. Bush would pull 34 percent GOP support in a primary — more than double Romney’s 15 percent and more than triple Rubio’s 10 percent, according to the Florida survey. Bush would lead Clinton 43-42 percent, an advantage well within the poll’s error margin.

Rubio met with top donors two weeks ago to consider his options, according to Politico. And the Rubio Victory Committee emailed backers last week to attend the fourth annual “Team Marco” event Jan. 23-24 at the Delano Hotel on South Beach. The joint fund-raising committee benefits Rubio’s Senate campaign and his Reclaim America Political Action Committee.

Among big names in Miami Republican politics — even Cuban Americans who consider Rubio their chosen son — loyalties lie with the more seasoned Bush.

“We’ve always been with Jeb,” former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami said earlier this month, referring to himself and his brother, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. He made the comments at a U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC event where Bush spoke, and where many other Cuban exiles also made clear that the former governor gets first dibs for their support.

There might be little downside for Rubio to run anyway.

Bush could ultimately decide against running, which would leave Rubio with one fewer competitor to worry about — and more Florida support. If Rubio doesn’t do well, he could use the presidential campaign money for his Senate reelection race. Florida law doesn’t allow a candidate to run for two different offices on the same ballot, but Rubio has time to wage a presidential bid before having to qualify for Senate — assuming he wants to serve a second six-year term there. Some Republicans have said privately that they aren’t sure he does.

The national exposure and experience of a presidential campaign in 2016 could also help Rubio in a future White House bid. Every recent Republican presidential nominee except George W. Bush lost a primary before getting his party’s nomination.

For South Florida Cuban Americans in particular, even the speculation that Bush and Rubio might both run is a boon, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC’s executive director in Washington.

“Marco is literally one of our own, and Jeb has been adopted as one of our own,” he said. “Our community holds them equally in high regard. We couldn’t lose either way.”

He noted that Rubio has given Bush a certain amount of deference.

“I think most rational people would say, essentially, it’s either now or never for Jeb,” Claver-Carone said. “But I don’t think that means Marco shouldn’t explore it as well. Until either makes a firm decision, they should both explore it — and our community is all the better for it.”