U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney tries not to crow when he talks about his friend Marco Rubio’s success in the Iowa caucuses.
The Okeechobee Republican is the only member of Florida’s large congressional delegation who endorsed the first-term senator for president at the beginning. Rubio’s strong finish in Iowa earlier this week, where he came in third — just behind Donald Trump — vindicates that choice, at least for now.
“It’s easy for those us on the Rubio train to gloat, but Marco made this happen in the last couple weeks by getting his message out across Iowa,” Rooney told McClatchy. “I truly believe that Marco has the ability to inspire people, become president of the United States and unify our party.”
But Rooney remains a lonely voice among Florida lawmakers. Most of the state’s GOP lawmakers endorsed former Gov. Jeb Bush back when he was being touted as the odds-on favorite to gain their party’s White House nomination. And they are sticking with him now, even as the odds for his flagging campaign grow longer.
“My support for Jeb Bush doesn’t say anything bad about Marco Rubio,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the seven-term congressman from Miami. “If you look at the Republicans from South Florida, all three of us are for Jeb. He is by far the most qualified candidate. He’s got the best track record, the temperament and the intellect to be commander in chief.”
Bush finished sixth in Iowa with just 2.8 percent of the caucus votes, more than 20 percentage points behind Rubio. Current polls show him faring somewhat better in New Hampshire, which holds its primary next week, with 9 percent, but that still lags behind Rubio, Iowa winner Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All four trail front-runner Donald Trump by large margins.
Diaz-Balart thinks that Bush will improve his standing in New Hampshire and then fare still better in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary. Bush is polling there at 10 percent, just behind Rubio. Trump is way ahead with 36 percent support, followed by Cruz at 19.7 percent.
“Gov. Bush has the staying power,” Diaz-Balart said. “This is not a sprint; this is clearly a long, drawn-out marathon. He has a very methodical plan as to how he gets the delegates to be the Republican nominee.”
Some Bush stalwarts in Florida appear to be starting to hedge their bets in the wake of Rubio’s Iowa finish. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores, south of Clearwater, speaks highly of Rubio as he recalls his election to the U.S. Senate in 2000.
“The reason Marco burst on the national scene six years ago is he’s got natural leadership abilities and he can articulate the conservative vision,” Jolly said. He recalls praising Rubio in November when the two shared the stage after the senator gave a rousing address to Florida Republicans at the Sunshine Summit in Orlando.
“I said to him, ‘You just might be the next president of the United States,’“ Jolly recalled. He said Rubio responded, “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Yet Jolly is in the Bush camp for now, though not adamantly. “I still hope Jeb’s our nominee,” he said, before adding “but we would be a fortunate nation to have Marco as our president.”
It’s hard to gauge whether others might be struggling with their early endorsement of Bush. Most of Bush’s Florida congressional backers declined to make themselves available for questions.
Among the 11 Republican lawmakers who’ve endorsed Bush for president, aides to two – Reps. Dennis Ross of Lakeland and Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville – did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Aides to four other Bush backers said their bosses were too busy to talk.
“Unfortunately, the congressman isn’t available to chat today,” said Nicole Rapanos, a spokeswoman for Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Kendall. “Feel free to reach out for future requests!”
Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key was similarly unavailable. “I'll try to get him to call you, but it may be difficult,” his spokeswoman, Gretchen Andersen, said Wednesday. Asked for an update Thursday, Andersen responded: “We’re going to take a pass on this right now. Thanks for reaching out!”
Dan McFaul, a spokesman for Rep. Jeff Miller of Chumuckla in the Panhandle near the Alabama line, said Wednesday he’d try to get hold of Miller but cautioned “it might be tough. Perhaps another day?” Thursday, McFaul did not respond to repeated requests.
Rep. Ted Yoho, a tea party enthusiast from Gainesville, said he was disappointed that his preferred candidate, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, had dropped out after Iowa. Neither Floridian in the race will draw his support, he said. Bush is part of the Republican establishment, which Yoho wants to shake up, and Rubio doesn’t have enough experience outside politics, Yoho said.
“I see Ted Cruz standing for the things that I believe in,” Yoho said of the senator from Texas. “He feels the way I feel, that we’re in a constitutional crisis. In his arguments [as a lawyer] before the Supreme Court, he fought for core conservative principles and defended the Constitution.”
Told that it sounded as if he were endorsing Cruz’s White House run, Yoho responded: “I wouldn’t dispute that.”
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose