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Florida Republicans Weigh In On Bush-Rubio Battle

Jeb Bush (left) and Marco Rubio at the CNBC Republican presidential debate Wednesday. Their battling of late is leaving some Florida Republicans with an uncomfortable choice.
Mark J. Terrill
Jeb Bush (left) and Marco Rubio at the CNBC Republican presidential debate Wednesday. Their battling of late is leaving some Florida Republicans with an uncomfortable choice.

Jeb Bush is trying to jump-start his campaign this week, with a new focus and a new slogan: "Jeb Can Fix It."

That's meant to highlight his two terms as governor of Florida, but it might also apply to his lackluster campaign.

Bush's hopes to dominate the race as front-runner are a distant memory, with outsider candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson leading the field since the summer.

But lately, Bush has been fighting more fiercely with a man he once mentored, Marco Rubio. When Bush was governor, Rubio served as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Their battling of late is leaving some Florida Republicans with an uncomfortable choice.

On a campaign swing through his home state on Monday, Bush stopped in the Orlando area, greeting teachers and students at an educational center for people with disabilities.

That's an issue he worked on as governor. Bush is trying to refocus his campaign onto his record and his accomplishments. It's a theme calculated to differentiate him from others in the race — including Rubio, a first-term senator.

Bush laid it out in an earlier speech in Tampa when he said, "The challenges we face as a nation are too great to roll the dice on yet another presidential experiment, to trust the rhetoric of reform over a record of reform."

He didn't mention Rubio by name, but it's clear in recent weeks that Bush's campaign considers his friend and former political protege a threat. In last week's debate, Bush attacked Rubio's poor attendance record in the Senate, a salvo that Rubio deftly turned back on Bush.

Orlando resident John Thompson said he's impressed by what he's seen from Rubio. "I liked his response. I think it was right on," he said. "I think it was something Jeb was probably told to do by his political campaigners. Nobody really likes the mudslinging. And that was kind of the shining moment in the debate, I think."

Bush drew many longtime friends and supporters to his events Monday, people like Milton Aponte, an immigration lawyer who drove to Orlando from the Fort Lauderdale area. Aponte doesn't think Bush was attacking Rubio, just raising a valid concern.

"I'm your constituent. If I elect you to be senator, I want you to be there on the Senate floor, participating, taking the votes, going there, participating in the committees," Aponte said of Rubio. "Do what we elected you to do."

A few days after last week's debate, a Bush campaign document that was leaked to U.S. News and World Report laid out two pages of bullet points showing ways to attack Rubio. "No accomplishments" is right at the top.

Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson believes that Bush is making a big mistake in targeting Rubio. Wilson, who isn't working with any of the presidential candidates, pointed out that Rubio isn't the guy who knocked Bush into also-ran status. That was Trump.

"You have to blow Donald Trump out of the field if you're Jeb Bush," Wilson said. "You have to take him out of the picture to start reassembling the aura that you're the giant-killer, that you are shock and awe, that you are the big dog."

There are many Republicans in Florida and elsewhere who like Bush, but who aren't sure his style of campaigning can break through the noise this year. To Wilson, that's why a fresh start for the Bush campaign is so vital.

"Frankly, the donor community is very nervous, and increasingly so," he added. "And unless he shows some real forward progress, some real forward motion, they're going to start quietly disappearing from writing checks to Jeb."

Brett Robinson, a 22-year-old student who is active with the Young Republicans at the University of Central Florida, agrees that it's time for Bush to up his game — "kind of take a little bit of what Trump has, but at the same time show, 'Look, I know what I'm doing. Here's my plan. Here's what I've got to bring to the table.' "

Bush insists that it's just the beginning of the campaign, but he doesn't have a lot of time. While voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have started to pay attention, he hasn't gained any ground. And in just about three months, those voters will begin casting ballots.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.