Marco Rubio

In Florida, political support starts to shift to Marco Rubio

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at a rally Sunday in Franklin, Tenn.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks at a rally Sunday in Franklin, Tenn. AP

For months, Marco Rubio toiled as the second-class Miami Republican running for president, dismissed by most of the ruling order in favor of his political elder, Jeb Bush, when it came to two crucial campaign yardsticks: money and endorsements.

No more.

Bush’s exit from the race Saturday after a lackluster fourth-place result in the South Carolina primary freed the former Florida governor’s supporters to select a new candidate. And that began a steady shift to Rubio.

The first local politicians to declare their new allegiance: Miami’s current and former Cuban-American Republican members of Congress, who plan to endorse the Florida senator en masse Monday after having initially backed their decades-old friend Bush.

Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, all intend to back Rubio in a Coral Gables news conference that will signal a united front in Rubio’s favor. It will also send a message to others caught in the Bush-Rubio rivalry to let go of any bad blood from the past months sooner rather than later.

“We feel real good about Florida, especially now that the race has narrowed,” Rubio said Sunday on ABC News’ This Week. “Obviously, I have a lot of admiration and respect for Gov. Bush. We obviously shared a lot of supporters. Now that he’s suspended his campaign, I think that really boosts us — not just in Florida but in Ohio and in other key places around the country.”

On Sunday, one U.S. senator who had sided with Bush, Dean Heller of Nevada, stumped for Rubio — two days before Nevada’s GOP caucuses. A Nevada Republican congressman who had remained neutral joined them. (So did Donnie Wahlberg, the actor and founding member of the boy band New Kids on the Block, because, it seemed, he figured Rubio had the right stuff.)

And it’s not just endorsements (which the Rubio campaign, truth be told, had scoffed at early on when Bush boasted of them). Some of the Florida people who ensure a campaign’s survival — financiers — were also making the jump, according to Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist who publicly broke with Bush’s candidacy in favor of Rubio’s after the pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise went after the senator.

“A lot of people were prepared to come to Marco — they kind of saw the writing on the wall — but were waiting for Jeb to get out,” Ballard said. “There’s really no time for people to study their navels if they want to get involved.”

From the dozens of calls he said he made and fielded Sunday, Ballard said he didn’t hear hard feelings — a point Rubio fans have been making for days to keep the doors open to new checkbooks.

“The best thing Jeb’s campaign did was raise money and build resources,” Ballard said. “They’re welcomed by the Marco campaign with open arms.”

Bush didn’t back anyone Saturday, and his aides wouldn’t say if or when he would. The Huffington Post reported Sunday that former Republican nominee Mitt Romney was set to endorse Rubio, but the senator denied that was true, at least for now.

Backers like Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo and the Diaz-Balarts could serve as prominent Rubio campaign surrogates over the coming weeks, especially on Spanish-language radio and television. All four politicians had been careful not to bash Rubio during the campaign, saying they thought Bush was more experienced but that Rubio would make a good nominee, too.

Curbelo had hinted at the coming endorsement in a tweet after Bush’s concession Saturday night:

On Sunday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, the former Republican Party of Florida chairman who had yet to pick a presidential candidate, also backed Rubio.

“For years, Marco Rubio and I have worked together for the conservative cause,” Curry said in a statement. “Today, and in this election for our nation’s future, I am proud to once again stand with my friend Marco Rubio.”

Securing Florida support matters to Rubio because the state’s winner-take-all primary, where 99 Republican nominating delegates are at stake, takes place March 15. Absentee ballots have already been mailed to voters who requested them. They list 13 GOP contenders, most of whom, like Bush, are no longer running.

Rubio’s campaign knew Miami-Dade County ballots would go out Tuesday — four days before Saturday’s South Carolina primary, which they suspected could push Bush out. So it asked Rubio’s friends in politics, such as County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, to take to the Spanish-language airwaves, which reach older Hispanics who tend to vote by mail, and remind listeners that not all candidates listed might be around come March 15.

Rubio got little rest Sunday, appearing on all five Sunday TV morning-news shows and holding campaign events in Tennessee and Arkansas — which hold their primaries March 1 — before continuing to Nevada. The rally outside Nashville drew a few thousand people, making it Rubio’s largest so far, the campaign said.

There’s pressure on him to do well in the Silver State: He lived in Las Vegas for several years as a child and still has family there. His team has spent resources reaching out to Mormon voters who have swung the caucuses in the past.

Nevada was once viewed as the most likely early state for Rubio to win. But his team has tamped down expectations in the face of Donald Trump’s ongoing electoral success. In his speech after winning second place in South Carolina on Saturday night, Rubio had called the Republican primary a three-man race among himself, Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, dismissing the candidacies of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Palm Beach and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.

On Fox News Sunday, Rubio declined to call on Kasich and Carson to drop out — although that’s what his campaign would like. He was also asked which state he’ll win.

“It’s been difficult up to this point because we’ve had a lot of people in this race,” he said. “So you have had Donald Trump sitting at around 30 percent or so nationally — sometimes under, sometimes a little over — and then you have 70 percent of the Republican electorate does not support Donald Trump. That 70 percent has been divided between five to seven people. As this race continues to narrow, I think that’ll be easier and easier, for that 70 percent to coalesce.”

Moving into March, Rubio added, “We have to start winning states, and we will.”

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