State Politics

2016 countdown for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio: Who’s in?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left, and Sen. Marco Rubio are seriously considering entering the 2016 presidential race, and either would stake a formidable claim to the Republican nomination. They will announce their intentions by early next year.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left, and Sen. Marco Rubio are seriously considering entering the 2016 presidential race, and either would stake a formidable claim to the Republican nomination. They will announce their intentions by early next year.

We concede: You’re exhausted from the election, the hurricane of attack ads and door knockers. Sick of Rick Scott and Charlie Crist.

But brush it off, the 2016 presidential campaign is upon us, and Florida is in the spotlight like never before.

Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush are seriously considering entering the race, and either would stake a formidable claim to the Republican nomination. They will announce their intentions by early next year.

For Rubio, it’s a decision of whether to give up an almost sure shot of reelection. (By Florida law, he can’t go for both.) At 43, he has years ahead on the political stage. Bush, 61, would have to surrender the harbor of semi-private life for the grind and glare of a national campaign.

Add in their close relationship and the difficulty of two candidates hailing from Florida, a crucial swing-state reservoir of votes and campaign cash, and things get interesting.

Every move in the past year has been parsed for clues. The pebble of news last week that Rubio’s new book is coming out Jan. 13 was the latest kindling. He’s been hustling to improve his standing with grassroots conservatives and getting face time helping midterm candidates in early nominating states.

Bush began 2014 looking less likely to run but has moved closer to the possibility. He, too, hit the campaign trail for other candidates, and a fundraising letter for his education foundation showed up recently in Iowa, stoking questions. But Bush hasn’t revealed anything to even his closest allies.

“All you can do is read the tea leaves, and right now, they don’t tell me a damn thing. He [Jeb] listens, but he always keeps his own counsel,” said Al Hoffman, a prominent Florida fundraiser. “I love Marco Rubio and I think Marco Rubio is also a fantastic candidate. But first and foremost, for me, is Jeb.”

That sentiment is common among top Florida Republicans and many of the national party elite, who like Bush’s executive experience and intellectual bearing. The son and brother of former presidents, he would have little trouble raising money.

“Rubio is young and dynamic, and people here have liked him,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank in New Hampshire. “But to some extent he’s overshadowed by Jeb Bush. Bush hasn’t been here, but he doesn’t have to. People don’t say when you mention his name, ‘Who’s that?’ The name is a blessing and a curse.”

For Rubio, the Bush question

One big question is whether Rubio would defer to Bush, should Bush decide to enter the race. Many Florida political insiders think he would, but that’s less certain as Rubio has asserted himself as a national figure. People close to the senator think (pray?) Bush will ultimately decide against running.

Still others believe that Rubio may conclude he could better serve in the Senate, especially with the GOP now holding the majority, or that the father of four could even leave elective office for something more lucrative.

Are they sizing each other up? Surely.

But as much as reporters salivate at the prospect, friends say there isn’t tension and each man is viewing it as a personal decision to be made with family.

“I hate to disappoint, but there is no political telenovela under production in Florida,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist from Miami. “These guys have a genuine, long, strong relationship.”

Bush championed Rubio when he was an up-and-coming state legislator, and the two remain in contact. They were last together at a fundraiser for Gov. Rick Scott at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on Oct. 24. The 2016 chatter did not come up, according to people who attended.

They do not differ much on policy, though Rubio has denounced the Common Core education standards that Bush has championed. Both have advocated for immigration reform, but Rubio’s involvement in writing the 2013 Senate bill left him scorched by conservative activists who saw it as amnesty.

Rubio spent this year focused on other matters and has had meetings with activists as he’s traveled to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa, stumping for midterm election candidates.

“He learned,” said Keith Appell, a conservative strategist in Washington. “The folks at the grassroots level have taken note” of Rubio’s pivot from comprehensive immigration reform.

Appell sees in Rubio the fresh and energetic face of a resurgent GOP. “When he walks in a room and starts to speak, people just begin nodding.”

Others privately argue that this may not be the time for another young, rhetorically blessed White House aspirant, a comparison to President Barack Obama. Rubio has pushed hard into policy, however, with an emphasis on foreign affairs. Through his political action committee he has employed a team of respected strategists who could easily transition to a presidential campaign.

Rubio’s decision is complicated by circumstance. His Senate term is up in 2016, and Florida law bars a federal candidate from appearing twice on the same ballot. He could explore a presidential bid in 2015 and run in early presidential primaries. He would not be an official presidential candidate until after the GOP convention in the summer of 2016, and only then would he have to withdraw as a Senate candidate. But Rubio has said he would not attempt that maneuver.

National attention

Republicans have no shortage of potential 2016 candidates, and the field looks more qualified and seasoned than in 2012, when Mitt Romney emerged from a bloody primary process that featured a string of cartoonish or flawed rivals. Next week in Boca Raton, the Republican Governors Association will gather and show off several potential contenders, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

On Monday, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas will be in Sarasota, honored by the local GOP as “conservative of the year.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses and now resides in the Florida Panhandle, looks to be mounting a campaign. And at least three of Rubio’s Senate colleagues have talked about running: Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rob Portman of Ohio. Even Romney makes the speculation round.

The Democratic bench is mostly holding to see what Hillary Clinton will do, and it looks almost certain that she’ll run. More than a few Republicans see Bush as the field-clearing equivalent for Republicans.

“The day Gov. Bush announces, most of the people who think they will run will probably get out,” said Zach Zachariah, a Broward County cardiologist who is a major GOP fundraiser and has deep ties to the Bush family. “All the stars are aligned for him.”

Bush will get a burst of national attention next week when his education foundation hosts its annual meeting in Washington.

‘Can I do it joyfully?’

The Bush family, which has gotten a more favorable public reception during the Obama years, has been talking Jeb up. During an event Tuesday in Texas, former President George W. Bush again urged his younger brother to run. But he also implied that the former governor was not being guided by outside voices. “You can’t pressure somebody on such an important decision. ... Only he can decide.”

“The idea of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Bush troubles him, which speaks to his great integrity,” George W. Bush said during the unveiling of his book on his father, former President George H.W. Bush. “I said, ‘How does this sound: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton?’ The point is you don’t get to pick the environment in which you run.”

The Bush chatter has been met with a flurry of pushback. “Wildly overrated,” is how Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, described Bush in a radio interview Wednesday, suggesting that Bush was out of touch with conservative voters. The host, Laura Ingraham, readily offered up Bush’s stance on Common Core.

Bush, who like Rubio declined to be interviewed, said earlier this year in Florida that his decision rested on a central question: “Can I do it joyfully? Because I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits. It’s a pretty pessimistic country right now.”

Rubio said his decision will come down to where he thinks he can best serve. He’s gotten questions about age and experience, and been asked if he thinks he’s ready to be president. “I do,” he told ABC News in May. He just happened to be in New Hampshire.

In the coming weeks and months, attention on the race will grow substantially, putting pressure on Bush and Rubio to finally say: In or out?

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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