By Hastings Wyman –
There is a growing rivalry in the Sunshine State between the state’s two Republican presidential candidates. Earlier this year, the top dog was former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is given high marks by conservatives for his two terms as Florida’s governor. But opinion began to shift following the Fox News debate. US Sen. Marco Rubio’s numbers in the state went from single to double digits almost immediately after the debate, a trend that continued after the CNN debate. Bush’s numbers, however, declined sharply. (Don’t forget, however, that frontrunner Donald Trump, has come in first in every Florida poll since the first debate, with Bush and Rubio vying for a place in the top five.)
Among the recent surveys, Rubio edged Bush – 14% to 13% – in a poll taken for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. About the same time, however, a Florida Atlantic University survey showed Rubio with a substantial lead over Bush among Republican Primary voters, 19.2% to Bush’s 11.3%. It goes without saying that both men were trailing Trump, who led with 31.5%. But when asked who they would favor if Bush and Rubio were the only names on the primary ballot, 51% of Florida Republicans said Rubio to 31% who said Bush.
Although Bush led in a Public Policy Polling (D) survey taken in mid-September, several key numbers were stronger for Rubio. When asked if either of the Florida candidates should leave the race, 62% of Republicans said Rubio should continue campaigning, to 52% who thought Bush should stay in the race. More importantly, 73% of Floridians viewed Rubio favorably to 20% unfavorable, while Bush’s favorable to unfavorable ratio was an unimpressive 55% to 36%. And critically, when Bush was in a head-to-head with Trump among the state’s GOPers, Trump led by 55% to 38%. Rubio, however, ran ahead of Trump, albeit narrowly: 49% to 46%.
Susan MacManus, professor at the University of South Florida, says a lot of Rubio’s gains against Bush are due to the debates. “Florida has a history of debates redirecting people.” She adds, “People don’t feel that Jeb is as enthusiastic and gung-ho on the stump as when he was governor.”
While acknowledging Rubio’s debate performance has helped him, Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee political analyst, says that in addition, “A lot of people see Marco as the future of the Republican Party, because of his age and conservative views… He’s smooth, articulate, and good-looking.”
By contrast, among the complaints voiced about Bush are about his appearance – that he doesn’t look good in his clothes and that he ought to take his glasses off. This may be prompted by the youthful good-looks of Rubio, who is 44 to Bush’s 62, an 18-year difference.
MacManus and Bishop agree, however, that Bush remains a powerful contender. “You can’t count Jeb out. The power brokers are behind him,” says MacManus. “Ultimately Bush will beat Rubio, because of his strength among elected officials,” says Bishop.
Indeed, last week, 20 state senators, including the Senate president, endorsed Bush’s candidacy.
A Republican operative with long experience in Florida politics has a different view. “I think most of the polls right now are crap… There’s a lot of pushing people to decide. Most people just don’t know… Everything is so fluid right now. It’s like going into a restaurant that’s got too many things on the menu. It all sounds good.
He acknowledges, however, that Marco has improved his standing. “First, he’s done well in the debates. And second, he lives on Fox News… The viewership of Fox News among Republican primary voters is unbelievable. That includes Trump, Carson, Fiorina and Huckabee. Bush doesn’t get on Fox News that much.”
Bush has taken Rubio’s rise as a serious threat. As Rubio began to overtake him in the Florida polls, Bush began to attack Rubio, describing him as a minor figure in the conservative reforms that have taken place in the Sunshine State. In New Hampshire, Bush criticized Rubio for missing Senate votes. And in Iowa, Bush operatives tried to record a Rubio meeting, but were removed by Rubio’s staffers.
MacManus concludes, “It will come down to which one is doing better before Florida’s primary” on March 15, 2016. “The Republican nightmare is that Rubio and Bush will split the vote and Trump will take it.”
Indeed, the growing rivalry between the two is ironic, opines Sunshine State News, because “whoever drops out first will probably throw his support to the other.” Stay tuned.