ORLANDO — He’s slipping behind lesser-known rivals and losing claim to the front-runner status, but former Florida governor Jeb Bush enjoyed rare home-field advantage here Tuesday, using an economic forum to more forcefully attack opponents in the GOP presidential race.
Bush has mostly avoided sparring with Republican contenders, saying that he’s not yet an official candidate and is eager to be a “joyful” alternative for voters upset by partisan warfare.
But that strategy doesn’t appear to be working.
After he led surveys for several months, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday showed Bush slipping into a two-way tie for third place in the GOP field with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). He held an eight-point lead in the poll in March. Another national poll this week put Bush in a five-way tie for first.
So a strident, almost cocky Bush showed up at the forum held at Disney World to tell the “Florida story” he’s been sharing with voters nationwide. In a friendly room packed with longtime associates, he earned two standing ovations, more than other attendees.
“My intention is to run on my record and my ideas and run to try to win the presidency. Not to make a point,” he told the crowd. “Not to have my voice heard. There are motivations for every candidate. Mine would be to win.”
In a chaotic bilingual exchange with reporters, Bush said that Paul was “wrong about the Patriot Act” surveillance provisions and more aligned with Democrats than Republicans on national security. He also delivered his most personal swipe yet at Rubio in response to the senator’s suggestions earlier in the day that Republicans should elect younger leaders.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine that my good friend Marco would be critical of his good friend Jeb,” Bush said.
In a video message to the summit, Rubio had charged that “while our economy is transforming, our policies and institutions are not. Our outdated leaders continue to cling to outdated ideas.”
The exchange was a sign of the potential battle to come in Florida, a state with 29 electoral votes that GOP leaders are eager to win next year after falling short in 2008 and 2012.
The state’s GOP primary is scheduled for March 15 and will be among the first winner-take-all contests on the Republican calendar. Florida lawmakers pushed their primary back to take advantage of new party rules that allow the traditional early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — to go first in February and then encourage bigger states to hold winner-take-all contests that might help a candidate quickly secure the nomination.
Rubio was forced to address the summit by video as he stayed in Washington to vote on a bill significantly overhauling U.S. surveillance laws. His absence robbed attendees, state political observers and nearly 200 reporters in attendance the opportunity to see a live showdown between the state’s two favorite GOP sons.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who hosted the summit, begged GOP presidential candidates to compete in his state’s primary — even though that means competing against Bush and Rubio, who dominate statewide polls.
Walker faced criticism last week for suggesting that he might not fully compete here, leaving it to Bush and Rubio to blow through campaign cash in the state’s 10 media markets. On Tuesday, he clarified his comments — and accused the news media of twisting his words.
“If I were to run, we could compete anywhere in the country,” Walker told reporters. “The only pause I gave was in deference to two favorite sons here in Florida. . . . If I didn’t think I could compete, I wouldn’t be here today.”
On stage, Walker eagerly sought to make connections with Floridians: He first visited Disney World in 1971, frequently saw his grandparents in Fort Myers, and his wife has an aunt in Bonita Springs.
Those connections are scant compared with Bush and Rubio, who both live in Miami, and other candidates in the race. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee owns a $3 million home in the Florida Panhandle, although he admitted Tuesday that “it’s too early” to say whether he’ll compete here. Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson has a condominium in West Palm Beach. Businessman Donald Trump owns property in Palm Beach.
Scott dismissed suggestions that only Bush or Rubio could win in Florida.
“If that was true — that somebody that had a statewide reputation couldn’t be beat — I wouldn’t have won,” Scott said during a lunchtime question-and-answer session, hosted by Politico, recalling his 2010 come-from-behind election victory.
Scott won a narrow reelection race last year, beating Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. He briefly flirted with his own presidential run but has since backed off. He invited Bush, Rubio, Huckabee, Walker, former Texas governor Rick Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to appear at the day-long summit attended by his supporters and Florida business leaders.
Nearly all of the speakers had gushing praise for Scott; Christie said he might one day move to the state, given its lower taxes “and a great governor.” Huckabee praised Scott’s “extraordinary leadership” and explained that he said that for two reasons.
“Number one, because it’s true,” he said. “And number two, because this is his conference and anything that I can do to suck up to him and his donors, by gosh, I’m going to do it.”
Bush initially declined to advise his potential opponents on how to run successfully in Florida: “I’m not going to give them any advice! What are you talking about?”
Then, he relented.
“It’s a big, complex state, and like other states, you’ve got to connect with people, understand what the regional and local issues are,” he said. “People have a good story to tell; I just think that the one here in Florida is a pretty compelling one.”
Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush friend who attended the summit, said that polls are tightening because media attention is too focused on Bush’s family history and not on his record as Florida governor. “It’s about Bush, not Jeb,” he said.
But once people learn more about his time as governor, Cardenas said, “then it will become more about Jeb, not Bush.”