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In South Florida, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are forcing locals to pick sides

Members of the Miami Young Republicans, split between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, mingle at their monthly happy hour at a bar in Coral Gables, Fla., in March. (Charles Ommanney/For The Washington Post)

Marco Rubio was raised in West Miami and still lives just a few blocks south of "Calle Ocho," the famed boulevard where Cuban Americans often gather to protest the Castro brothers. The Florida senator's parents immigrated here from Cuba in the 1950s — a familiar history for many locals. His presidential bid will be announced Monday at the iconic Freedom Tower, which long served as an immigrant reception center.

About 12 minutes east is Coral Gables, where Jeb Bush lives. He came to South Florida in the 1980s to launch a real estate business and move his Mexican-born wife closer to her mother and sister. The couple raised three children, and Bush used his leadership of the local Republican Party to launch a political career that resulted in two terms as governor.

Never before in modern political history have two presidential candidates claimed the same hometown at the same time. But now Miami — better known for its beaches, its sports teams and as a hub of Latin American commerce and culture — is poised to become a major center of national Republican presidential politics.

Geographically and otherwise, Rubio and Bush represent different parts of Miami. The senator is a product of the city’s powerful and tight-knit Cuban American community, which Rubio supporters believe will get behind his bid. Bush, the transplant, has moved a few times across the city, but now lives in a traditional upper-class enclave.

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The rise of Bush and Rubio, whose political careers are inextricably linked, is a testament to the growing importance of Florida in presidential elections. Their bilingual and bicultural backgrounds will bring an urban feel to a race packed with rivals from rural states. Local Republicans say that both have what the GOP needs to win the White House.

“We’re in a presidential love triangle,” said Jessica Fernandez, president of the Miami Young Republicans. “Who doesn’t want to be in a presidential love triangle?”

Some here are backing Bush out of personal allegiance to him or his family. They see Bush, 62, as a seasoned manager and like that he embraced his wife’s Latino heritage. Others identify with Rubio’s life story and admire how the 43-year-old senator has risen through the ranks so quickly.

“A South Florida Republican is in large part a Republican that’s really significantly influenced in one way or another by the Bush experience,” said Jorge Arrizurieta, a longtime Bush friend and donor. “To those who’ve been active Republicans, they’ve been inevitably exposed in one way or another to a Bush campaign of some sort.”

The coming decision “marks a coming of age for South Florida — not only the politics, but the culture, the Pan-Americanism, the melting pot of sorts,” said Armando Ibarra, another member of the Miami Young Republicans. “I like both of the candidates; Jeb was a great governor, Marco Rubio was a great senator. Personally, I just really believe in the transformational qualities of a Marco Rubio candidacy.”

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There is the possibility of a real Bush-vs.-Rubio battle in Florida next year. If both men run for president and perform well in early primary states, they would face off in Florida’s winner-take-all primary in mid-March. They might be joined by other potential candidates who also live in the state. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has a home near Destin in the state’s Panhandle, and Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and conservative activist, lives in West Palm Beach. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) might also enjoy support here because of his Cuban American heritage.

But the focus is on Bush and Rubio. Anticipating a brawl, the Tampa Bay Times has already dubbed its 2016 coverage "Jebio" — a combination of "Jeb" and "Rubio." Early polling gives Bush an edge over Rubio in a primary.

“It’s a massive decision that I can’t even begin to think about,” said Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party, a position once held by Bush. “I can’t imagine how difficult a decision it would be for some people.”

Diaz met Rubio in 1996, when the future senator was running Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in South Florida. At the time, some other guy named Rubio was running for local office. So as a joke, Diaz took the man’s pink “Rubio” sign, cut it in half, took a “Bob Dole for President” sign, cut it in half and taped them together: The new sign read “Rubio for President.” Sadly, he didn’t keep it.

Jorge Luis Lopez, a Miami-area lobbyist, was one of the 200 Floridians who traveled with Bush to New Hampshire in 2000 to hand out oranges and campaign for his brother, George W. Bush. But Lopez is closer in age to Rubio and appreciates that the senator is drawing new, younger people into the process.

“The bulk of the people we’re talking to, they’re a different group,” he said. “They’re aware of politics, but not engaged, and this is an interesting opportunity for them to get engaged.”

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As he prepares for his announcement, Rubio has been selling a chance to win tickets to his campaign kickoff for $3.05 — a tribute to Miami’s 305 area code. At the start, Rubio is expected to divide his campaign operations between South Florida and Washington, where most of his top aides and their families reside, aides said.

Later this month, Jeb Bush will host his top fundraisers at a two-day conclave at the swanky 1 Hotel in South Beach. Once Bush announces, he's expected to open a campaign headquarters here. Top aides, including campaign manager-in-waiting David Kochel, are relocating to Miami in anticipation of a run.

In West Miami, Rubio's house is at the end of a cul-de-sac, where his large, gray Ford pickup truck sits in the driveway. He briefly put the home up for sale last year for nearly $696,000.

Rubio is a frequent customer at the CVS pharmacy a few blocks away, where signs in each aisle are printed in English and Spanish. “He comes all the time — weekends, during the week, with the kids, the wife,” a shift manager said recently.

The pharmacy is on Calle Ocho (or "SW 8th St." on street signs) amid locally owned print shops, medical clinics and tax accountants whose signs urge customers to "Preparé los taxes aquí." When his top aides are in town, they like eating at La Palma Cafeteria, one of several family-owned Cuban restaurants in the neighborhood.

Much of Rubio’s free time is absorbed by a devotion to football and the Miami Dolphins. He’s been a devout fan since the age of 6, when he started developing an encyclopedic understanding of the game. Colleagues gifted him two years of Dolphins season tickets when he left the Florida House in 2008. He still attends games with his children.

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Bush's home is on a tree-lined street, just a few blocks from buildings housing the regional offices of HBO, Bacardi and Del Monte produce. Bush and his wife, Columba, are fans of a nearby restaurant, Talavera, which serves meals inspired by Mexican street markets and some of Mexico City's top restaurants.

Until recently, Bush shared an office with his son, Jeb Bush Jr., at the luxurious Biltmore Hotel, where they based their investment company. The father and son often play golf together on the hotel’s course on Sunday mornings.

He drives a Ford Fusion hybrid and recently told a crowd in Iowa last month that he shops at a Publix supermarket near his home for “Iowa beef.” During a recent visit to the store, workers behind the deli counter conversed with customers in English and Spanish. In the back aisle, meat and poultry are labeled in both languages — but there is no sign that the beef comes from Iowa.

A few blocks away is the Church of the Little Flower, one of the region’s oldest Catholic parishes. The Bushes are members.

On Sundays, Bush “is like clockwork, he comes in about five minutes beforehand, he gets his seat in a certain spot in our church and does what everybody else does,” said the pastor, the Rev. Michael W. Davis.

Rubio also has ties to the church. It was where he married his wife, Jeanette, in 1998. The couple and their four young children regularly attend Christ Fellowship, a local evangelical church. But they attend services at Little Flower around the holidays, Davis said.

Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a talk-show host on the local “Radio Mambi,” remembers meeting Bush in the 1980s when she used to lead marches protesting the Castro regime. Despite not being Cuban or originally from Miami, “he really felt like these were his people,” she said.

Rubio has been a frequent guest on Pérez’s weekday show, and she said her audience feels a personal bond with him.

“One time he came by and was late,” she recalled. “He showed up and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m late, but you know how it is. The kids . . . and the washing machine broke.” Within minutes, “we had 22 calls from people who repair washers calling, saying that they wanted to repair his washer,” she said.