September 22, 2014
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President Jeb Bush? President Marco Rubio?

How America's next leader might be a Floridian- and a look at the pros and cons of two very hot candidacies.

Illustration by Long Nguyen

Election fatigue?

Impossible—not when the two leading candidates for president in the next election are two Republicans from Miami. The next round is already in play, as all eyes in the political world focus on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the state’s current junior U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Poll after poll shows them leading all fields for at least their party’s nomination in 2016, although neither says he will run. In fact, both say it’s too early to talk about a candidacy. That doesn’t stop speculation. And debate over candidates also involves debate over the party’s future and how the next presidential contender must confront not only fast-changing world issues but also the demographic changes sweeping the nation.

For Florida, this native-son presidential talk is a new topic. Despite Florida’s oft-cited status as “a microcosm of the nation,” a state with remarkably different communities and diverse populations, no Floridian in modern history has even come close to nominee status.

Two Democrats tried. Reubin Askew, governor from 1971-79, announced his presidential intentions in February 1983, and withdrew 13 months later, after finishing last in the New Hampshire primary. Bob Graham, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988 after two terms as governor, declared his candidacy in February 2003, but withdrew seven months later amid health concerns, and did not seek Senate re-election.

Most experts chalk up that lack of contenders to Florida’s late emergence as a political force. “Now there’s no math for Republicans to win the presidency without Florida, so the chances of a Florida Republican being on the ticket are better than ever,” says Brad Coker, Florida director of the independent Mason-Dixon opinion research firm.

For Bush and Rubio, those chances now look good. Will they both run? Which one will run? Which could win—not just the nomination, but the White House? Those are the questions that get experts weighing pros and cons. And while Bush and Rubio have much in common, they also have significant differences.

Both appeal to Hispanic voters, a booming group many Republicans think the party has overlooked to its detriment: 71 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama last November. Rubio is Hispanic- American; Bush is fluent in Spanish, has a wife from Mexico and for years has urged a gentler GOP approach to immigration.

Both are conservative, in different ways. While Bush was considered quite conservative as governor from 1998-2006, “the gap between the conservative and Tea Party wings of the party, and the party establishment has widened quite a bit” since then, says Coker. “Jeb is just as conservative now as he was then, but now he would be considered more the establishment wing of the party.”

Rubio is often called “the darling of the Tea Party,” which helped him win his Senate race after starting as a long-shot. Recent speeches and votes signal he’s still mindful of that bloc. Still, he’s mainstream enough to give the official rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address, and Time put him on a recent cover calling him the party’s “savior.”

Both have been praised as charismatic leaders. Bush wins accolades for his brainy, think-tank policy advancements and Rubio for his ability to speak from the heart and touch others personally. Bush, 60, is described as the party’s intellectual conscience; Rubio, 41, as the telegenic, new-idea guy.

And that’s just the start.

The Case for Jeb Bush

The first thing said about a Jeb Bush candidacy is that his name is both an asset and a liability. The next thing most experts say is does he really want to run?

Many voters—especially with the wars and national deficit connected to the last Bush presidency likely to remain—are not excited about another Bush presidency, says Tom Slade, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “Jeb has to wear the Bush necklace, and some pieces of that necklace aren’t very pretty.” Candidates often try to distance themselves from previous relationships, but in Jeb’s case, family loyalty makes separating himself from his brother even more difficult, he adds.

The assets come from name recognition, and perhaps more importantly, from the instant network for fundraising and support. Add to that the accomplishments and fond memories of his father’s presidency, and his own time as Florida’s governor.

“Other candidates will have to work to build and develop a national network of fund raisers and supporters,” says Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist who manages the influential Irreverent View political blog. “Jeb has that already built with his own and his family connections. He can have an overnight network in all 50 states. Raising money will not be a problem.”

Bush kept a relatively low profile during the last election cycle. He was not outwardly involved in many campaigns, and did not have a high visibility role at the GOP’s national convention in Tampa last year.

Much of his time is devoted to his Foundation for Excellence in Education think tank. As governor, Bush drove major changes in Florida’s school system, and focuses on education—which many strategists see as a rich future issue— in his speeches and writings. “Jeb did a lot to improve Florida education, at a time when it was harder to make those changes,” Slade says. “He has a real good record as governor.”

Bush also has co-authored a book on immigration that will be published this spring, all while running his own consulting business.

“In some ways, Jeb has moved more towards policy than politics, but that’s not always a move of strength for someone who wants to run for president,” says Coker.

And that leads to the other big question surrounding Bush: How badly does he want to be president?

“Jeb would be the 800-pound gorilla if he runs,” says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who led President Obama’s two Florida campaigns. “The real question is whether he wants it. Does he really need to be president? He wields so much influence and power doing what he’s doing. Does he really want to go through a national campaign?”

Family also matters. Bush’s wife, Columba, is no fan of the hurly-burly of politics, yet their sons are also politically active, including one who’s eying a bid for elected office in Texas. How a campaign affects them all weighs on Bush’s mind, friends say.

But another son made his feelings clear: In response to a question about whether his father would run for president, Jeb Bush Jr. told CNN, “I hope so.”

The Case for Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio may not have Jeb Bush’s name recognition, nor the national network—but he’s already caught the eye of national leaders and the spotlight is getting brighter.

At age 41, Rubio has eight years in the Florida Legislature on his resume, including two as House Speaker, and election to the Senate in 2010. Since then, there’s been a nationally televised convention speech, the trip to Iowa—home of an early presidential caucus—and countless other political appearances.

There’s the memoir out last year, with the accompanying tour; there are appearances on The Daily Show, the interviews and stories in national magazines, including GQ and New York, the hints of being short-listed as Mitt Romney’s running mate, which Jeb Bush actually endorsed.

“Marco Rubio has a very unique window now,” says Schale. “Some people might say he’s inexperienced, but this moment is here. Some people in my party might be dismissive of him, but I think he’s a smart guy, with a lot of appeal. Anyone who underestimates him does so at their peril.”

More time in Washington could just mean more controversial votes, or evolving into just another insider, Schale adds, but now he’s the bright, attractive rising star with a good personal narrative.

Rubio often references his blue-collar immigrant family in speeches about self-reliance and hard work. Although some details of his family’s story in Cuba were found to be embellished in early speeches, the controversy essentially died out with little lasting impact.

But how that and other, older controversies, mostly involving financial matters, appear under national scrutiny raises questions. “He’s been through a lot with the Florida press, and came out OK, but it’s different when the Washington Post and The New York Times start checking out your life,” Ingram says.

More importantly, he adds, Rubio should make more speeches involving some fresh ideas; something different from the speeches that won success in Florida.

“There’s no question Rubio is smart, and he’s pretty, and he’s popular,” says former party boss Slade. “The big question in my mind is can he build a money team? He’s got a lot of people who like him, but are they people who can raise him the money it takes to be president?”

Pollster Coker thinks Rubio is “clearly positioning himself for a presidential race,” including his fiscal cliff votes that, while in the minority, separate him from other congressional Republicans who may have presidential ambition. The next two years provide time for more “seasoning,” Coker says, but at the same time Rubio must take care that he does not seem to neglect Senate work in favor of presidential-style exposure.

So far, that hasn’t been a problem. “Rubio seems to be very careful in how he gets attention,” says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor who specializes in Florida politics. “He knows he’s under the microscope 24-7 now, and he’s handling it very well.”

Game of Chicken?

If Bush runs, “I hope he decides early, because no one else would run against him,” Ingram says. “The last thing the party needs is another primary where the winner comes out battered and bruised.”

Which one might defer to which is something few Republicans want to say publicly, but most think Rubio would not run against Bush, his long-time friend and mentor. Others aren’t so sure, given   primary involving both would tear the party apart.

When will they decide? Some, like Slade, say “now” is not too early to start organizing and lining up financial backers. Others say any serious contender will be in view going into the midterm 2014 elections. “You’ve got to be out there campaigning and helping other candidates in the midterms to stay on the radar and develop relationships,” says Coker.

But every race has two candidates, and the Democratic nominee also impacts the shape of the contest. If Hillary Clinton runs, and wins the party’s nomination, a race between Bush and Clinton—two established names—would likely be a very different race than one between Rubio and Clinton, with inescapable issues of gender and ethnicity, MacManus says.

Regardless, Republicans now think they’re in good position for 2016. “We’ve got two guys who are both really good, really smart, very successful, and they are both from Florida,” Slade says. “Either one would be good, and that’s the best possible position to be in. This is going to be a fascinating race.”

 

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