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Florida Primary Shows Rubio’s Influence

Former State Speaker Downplays Role in Primary, But Candidates Covet Association With Rising Star

Sen. Marco Rubio’s star was already on the rise, but the brawl for Florida between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney solidified Rubio’s status as a national figure in the 2012 presidential contest and as heir to the Republican crown in the Sunshine State.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush retains near-iconic status among Florida Republicans, and his endorsement in the presidential contest — should he grant one — could offer a candidate the kind of national credibility and fundraising assistance that is so far beyond Rubio’s capability.

But it was the unaligned Rubio who occupied more political space in the final, tumultuous days of the state’s presidential primary campaign, as candidates fought over who was more closely — and positively — associated with him.

One Republican insider with Florida ties referred to Bush as the state GOP’s “chairman of the board” and Rubio as “president and CEO” — a description echoed by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who won the 2008 Florida GOP presidential primary and spent the weekend campaigning for Romney.

Rubio is expected to play a major role in the fall campaign — in Florida and nationally — whether as a running mate or as a key surrogate that helps the GOP broaden its base with Hispanics.

“He’s a superstar,” said McCain, who was his party’s nominee in 2008. “Not in just Florida but in national politics. Everybody expects him to be one of the prime candidates for vice president of the United States. That’s pretty good for a guy in his first term.”

Rubio declined to endorse in the just-concluded presidential primary. But his presence in the race was ubiquitous. Gingrich and Romney competed over rolling out the welcome mat for Rubio in any White House administration they might assemble. They argued over who was quicker to endorse him in his 2010 Senate bid, and even over whose staff and supporters were more closely aligned to Rubio.

The Romney campaign suggested Rubio’s influence could not be overstated. The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign considers one of its best days of the Florida campaign to be last Wednesday, when Rubio urged the Gingrich campaign to take down a Spanish-language radio ad that described Romney as “anti-immigrant.”

The former Speaker’s campaign complied, saying it pulled the spot “out of respect” for Rubio. Meanwhile, Romney said during Thursday’s CNN debate that he was “glad Marco Rubio called you out” on the ad.

“What he said on the Gingrich ad was a big moment in the final week,” a Romney campaign aide said. “The governor’s performance at the two debates and that moment were the biggest moments in the race. It had a big impact.”

During a brief interview Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Rubio downplayed his role in the Florida primary, saying: “I didn’t have a role. I was a voter in Florida. I voted, but other than that I largely left it up to the people of Florida — particularly Republican voters who I think are going to make a wise choice one way or the other.”

But when asked about his criticism of Gingrich’s radio ad, the Senator indicated that it was more than flippant — and directly related to the expectation that he will be stumping for the eventual GOP nominee. Rubio appeared to be concerned that wooing Hispanics — a key, growing voting bloc — could be more difficult if he and others find themselves having to rebut unhelpful charges that his party is unfriendly toward Hispanics.

“Heated rhetoric always has that potential,” said Rubio, who has otherwise been complimentary of Gingrich. “You worry about lasting damage done to the persona and the view the voters may have about any individual.”

With low job-approval ratings and a relatively thin relationship with Florida’s Republican grass roots, Gov. Rick Scott is not the political heavyweight that most chief executives are in their respective parties. Elected in 2010, he was almost an afterthought in the presidential primary campaign. He did not endorse a candidate, but his backing was not coveted. To some degree, Scott’s diminutive stature explains Bush’s continued influence and Rubio’s fast rise within the Republican ranks.

Rubio, the former state Speaker, was elected to the Senate in 2010 on the strength of substantial tea party support. The then-39-year-old ethnic Cuban toppled sitting Gov. Charlie Crist (I), who left the Republican Party after it became clear he could not beat Rubio in the GOP primary.

Hispanics represent 11 percent of the GOP primary vote in Florida, which has added value to Rubio’s political cache. But nationally, and from the standpoint of influencing voters in general elections, Bush carries at least as much weight in Florida, a swing state that will be hotly contested in the general election. And though he’s a bit removed from day-to-day politics, Bush remains influential at home and nationally.

Bush’s conservative credentials are rarely questioned. And his endorsement could be the seal of approval it would take to get big Republican donors who have sat on the sidelines to back a candidate and contribute. For a candidate like Romney, whose conservative credentials and ability to close the deal are still questioned in some quarters, an endorsement from Bush is viewed by Florida Republicans as one that could be particularly helpful.

“Jeb has the Bush Rolodex. But Marco has the notoriety from his recent run,” a Republican strategist based in Florida said. “Their endorsements are equally coveted.”

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