They can’t bring themselves to say it outright, instead using oblique putdowns, a pair of passive aggressive buddy-rivals on the 2016 presidential campaign trail.
Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are at the top of a big field of candidates seeking the Republican nomination. The former Florida governor and the current U.S. senator are largely in line on the issues, so they are plying other avenues to undermine each other.
The back-and-forth is a case study in the subtler art of political combat. It’s also an illustration of how strong Rubio, who has long seen Bush as the standard-bearer for Florida Republicans, has emerged in the contest’s early stages. A new poll shows him at Bush’s heels in Florida, crucial to any Republican’s shot at the White House.
While they dance around the subject, both know their hopes rest on eliminating the other guy — preferably before the March 15 Florida primary, avoiding a costly and personal war.
“I chose to run because, for America, the future is now,” Rubio said in a speech Thursday in Washington. “And if we keep promoting the same leaders, we will be left behind and we will lose the race for the 21st Century.
“There are those seeking the presidency based solely on what they achieved in the past.”
Is he talking about Hillary Clinton? Yes. But Rubio, 44, is also talking about Bush.
He just won’t mention Bush, 62, by name.
“There are those who say, 'Well, we like Marco, but we support someone else because now is not his time. But he has a great future,’ ” Rubio continued, referencing Bush surrogates who took to TV after Bush formally announced his candidacy last week in Miami. “Well, that’s good news because this election is in the future. But more importantly, this election is about the future.”
Every election is about the future, Bush recently said, all but adding, “Duh.”
Bush is playing up his experience as a two-term governor, belittling unnamed U.S. senators who, he says, may be good at “yapping” but have little accomplishment.
He warns voters about putting another Barack Obama in office.
“As our whole nation has learned since 2008, executive experience is another term for preparation, and there is no substitute for that,” Bush said in his announcement speech. “We are not going to clean up the mess in Washington by electing the people who either helped create it or have proven incapable of fixing it.”
There are three Republican senators in the race: Rubio, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. Bush is threatened only by Rubio, who has an Obama-like gift for speech-making and a son-of-Cuban-immigrants storyline.
If Bush’s ties to the Hispanic community weren’t genuine, his announcement ceremony at Miami Dade College may have seemed an over-the-top attempt to prove Rubio isn’t the only candidate who can appeal to a growing electorate. Bush featured Cuban singers and spoke in Spanish as people waved signs that read “Todos por Jeb!”
The next day Bush went on Jimmy Fallon and “slow jammed” the news (partly in Spanish), spoke of falling in love with his Mexican-born wife and sipped a coquito, the rum-spiked eggnog drink popular in Puerto Rico.
“Whew!” the dieter said after taking a slug.
Before going further, some context:
Bush has been an ally of Rubio’s since Rubio entered politics, calling him on the night he won election to the West Miami City Commission in 1998. When Rubio became Florida House speaker, one of his first acts was to hire a bunch of Bush staffers who would have been out of a job when the governor left office. In Rubio’s office hung a sword Bush gifted him, a torch passing of sorts.
Many thought Rubio would stand down for Bush in 2016. But close followers of Rubio, restless as he is relentlessly ambitious, knew that was wishful thinking. Rubio began laying the groundwork for a run almost immediately after being elected to the Senate in 2010. Publicly he played down his designs and talked up Bush.
“Everyone I’ve ever known that tries to use their position as a stepping stone for something else has ended up destroying themselves,” Rubio said during a 2012 book tour. A man told Rubio he should run for president, but Rubio pointed to Bush. “It’s just amazing to me the depth of knowledge that he has on virtually any issue, from foreign relations to the economy and obviously education.”
When those comments resurfaced in an Associated Press story this year, Rubio allies suspected they were being pushed by Bush insiders, an early sign of the building tension in two aggressive and experienced camps.
Rubio didn’t wait for Bush and declared his candidacy in April. “Yesterday is over,” he declared, overtly referencing Hillary Clinton but knowing reporters would interpret it as meaning Bush, too.
The inferences have only grown.
“I’m often reminded that I don’t come from privilege and if privilege people mean money or fame, they’re right,” Rubio said Thursday before Christian conservatives in Washington. Again, the line works against Clinton or Bush, the son and brother of former presidents.
On the day Bush announced, Rubio’s team was pushing on social media a video that repeated the “yesterday is over” mantra. It was framed as an attack on Clinton, but it just happens to work on another level.
Publicly Bush and Rubio play gracious. Rubio put out a statement on the morning of Bush’s event welcoming him to the race and calling him a friend. “Thanks Marco,” Bush replied on Twitter. “Glad I can do it in our hometown. See you out there!”
But Bush’s team seized the attention of the day to further undermine Rubio, sending surrogates onto TV to call attention to Rubio’s lack of executive experience. State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, got on the stage in Miami and declared, “The presidency of the United States does not come with training wheels.” Not coincidentally, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux said the identical thing on CNN.
But the intrigue is between Bush and Rubio, not their respective backers, and it seems only a matter of time until they shed the indirect attacks.
All of this calls attention to the fact that Rubio has emerged as a serious contender and his message is breaking through. Hillary Clinton directly responded to his “yesterday” attack during her formal campaign kickoff. Yesterday, she said, is the soundtrack of the Republican Party platform.
“It’s a little awkward,” Bush told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Tuesday of going up against Rubio. “I mean, look, he’s a great guy. I admire him a lot.” He echoed that in an interview with ABC News from Iowa on Wednesday.
But Bush quickly added: “I think I’m more experienced and qualified than anybody running. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think that I have the skills to fix these things and to lead our country.”
“Governors have to make decisions,” he said, still jabbing. “Senators don’t. They can hide behind their collective body. I wasn’t calling out any particular senator.”
“It’s awkward for them and awkward for a lot of us,” said state Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala. Rubio’s strength, he said, “has put a lot more people in a waiting posture.
“If there is potential for a breakout candidate, it’s Marco. Of course, the governor has so much history with us.”
Contact Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.