They’re supporters of Jeb Bush, but friends and admirers of Marco Rubio.
That’s how many Florida Republican lawmakers see themselves, as their pick in the GOP presidential race is under fire and losing ground to a familiar home-state rival. It’s a delicate situation in the Sunshine State, where the intensifying family feud is pitting 11 of the state’s Republican lawmakers who back the former Florida governor against the lone GOPer — Rep. Tom Rooney — supporting the first-term senator.
So far, Bush’s friends in the House are sticking by him, though they express concern about the recent struggles of his campaign. But they’re surprisingly enthusiastic about Rubio, who Bush’s campaign has recently fingered as his biggest threat on the path to the White House.
“The [Bush] campaign has some challenges,” admitted Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a Bush supporter. “The serious candidates, they’ve had trouble finding their stride in the face of so-called outsiders … They’re trying to retool now.”
“Could Rubio be a great president? Absolutely,” Curbelo said, adding, “Would I be happy if he’s the one who made it? Very much so.”
“I would like to see Jeb performing better nationally,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who supported Bush months before his campaign began. “When you’re not performing as well as you’d like to, you need a good retail campaign. You need to work the phones, work the doors. He’s spent a lot of time raising money, but at some point you’ve got to come in and start pressing the flesh.”
Florida lawmakers have deep history with both Rubio and Bush, which makes the presidential primary all the more awkward. Many members of the Florida delegation know both candidates personally, particularly Rubio from his time as speaker of the Florida House.
Florida could play a pivotal role in the upcoming Republican primaries, which makes picking sides without offending the other candidate even trickier.
“Marco and I are friends,” Ross explained, echoing other members of the delegation. “Jeb, I first worked with in 1994, and he endorsed me for 1996 … I don’t know which way Florida will go.”
For Bush, touting establishment support of his experience as Florida’s chief executive is a big part of his message. In a recent presentation to donors, the Bush campaign bragged that “those closest to Marco choose Jeb.” Rubio, on the other hand, dubs himself “frustrated” by the Senate and says if he wasn’t running for president it’s unclear if he would seek reelection. Nonetheless, two Senate colleagues have endorsed him in recent days: Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who both stressed his youth and said he represented a new generation of conservatives.
Rep. David Jolly — who is running for Rubio’s Senate seat — suggested Bush is distracted in the face of attacks from other candidates. “There are challenging moments where the criticisms become so loud that it gets you off-focus,” Jolly said. “If we focus in … we’ll do just fine.”
Jolly recently pledged to rarely miss House votes while running for Senate, in remarks that were interpreted as a slap at Rubio, who has frequently missed votes while running for president. “If you’re holding a current office and running for another office you should be under extremely strict ethical scrutiny in terms of whether or not you’re doing the job to which you were elected,” Jolly told a lunch crowd at the start of October, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
But in a recent interview, Jolly was quick to praise Rubio.
“I think Jeb Bush brings a career of experience that is ripe for the White House, but I would be excited to support Rubio as well,” he said. “He’s one candidate who could capture the heart and soul of the party and could really surge. He’s one of our real stars.”
Tensions between Bush and Rubio have become a major topic of conversation in Florida since Bush awkwardly attacked his former political mentee during the last Republican debate, lawmakers said.
“Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Bush told Rubio, who was standing on his left. “You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”
Unbowed, Rubio replied: “The only reason why you’re [criticizing me] now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” The crowd applauded, moderators proceeded to the next question, and for the rest of the debate, Bush failed to recover.
Rooney, Rubio’s sole supporter in the Florida delegation, called the attack on his Senate attendance “really sad.”
“[Bush] looked uncomfortable. He didn’t pull it off. I love Jeb Bush. I like a lot of the things he stands for. But Jeb Bush’s problem is a hell of a lot bigger than whether or not Marco is in his path,” Rooney said.
“That probably wasn’t the best engagement to have at the time,” Ross acknowledged. “[Bush] is in a moment where people have stolen some of his game and he’s frustrated by that.”
Since last week, Bush’s campaign has launched a new slogan — “Jeb Can Fix It” — and released an e-book compiling hundreds of e-mails from his time as Florida governor, most about state policy. The reviews have not been great. On Tuesday, the campaign received more bad news: a Bay News 9/News 13 Florida Decides poll put Bush fifth in the state, receiving only 7 percent of the Florida GOP primary vote, less than half of what Rubio earned.
Bush’s aides are urging patience. “Jeb’s going to have a few weeks of bad polls,” Bush communications director Tim Miller tweeted Monday. “Comebacks take time, we recognize and are prepared for that.” The campaign did not respond to a request for further comment.
Some of Bush’s supporters from Florida were adamant he’ll turn it around.
“We’re still on and will continue to be on the Jeb bandwagon,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). “There’s a lot of early games right now, highs and lows, but once people are done flirting with the other candidates, they’re going to see that Jeb is the slow and steady tortoise that is going to get us to the finish line.”
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), another Bush backer, downplayed the significance of the run-in with Rubio at the debate. “They’re just two candidates,” he said. “That’s what they do.”
In Columbia, S.C. on Tuesday, Bush continued his attack against Rubio. “People that are serving need to show up and work, period,” he told CNN. “I just think people need to show up and work. That’s what I did.” Rubio, perhaps in a nod to the criticism, was back on Capitol Hill for votes and a Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday.
Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), another Bush supporter, summed up the thoughts of several colleagues when he remarked on the choice between the two.
“Marco is a very talented young man … [But] at the end of the day, I’m helping Jeb,” he said. “If Jeb were not in the race, a lot of people would be for Marco, and if Marco were not in the race, a lot of people would be for Jeb.”