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Florida Republicans Weigh In On Bush-Rubio Battle

Nov 3, 2015
Originally published on November 4, 2015 6:00 pm

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.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush has a new slogan, Jeb can fix it. The slogan is meant to say the former Florida governor can fix Washington. Bush has admitted, though, that he needs first to fix his campaign.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The man once seen as the Republican favorite has disappointed supporters in debates and is raising less money than once expected. Those ahead of Bush in polls include his fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio.

GREENE: And their rivalry has left some Florida Republicans with an uneasy choice. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Orlando.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: To make a fresh start, Jeb Bush came home, back to Florida, the state he led for two terms as governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEB BUSH: How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good.

BUSH: I love the dress. You look so pretty.

ALLEN: On a campaign swing through the state, 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 Florida first-term Senator Marco Rubio. Bush laid it out in a speech yesterday in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: The challenges we face as a nation are too great to roll the dice on another presidential experiment, to trust the rhetoric of reform over a record of reform.

ALLEN: He didn't mention Rubio by name. But it's clear in recent weeks Bush's campaign considers his friend and former political protege a threat. Rubio was speaker of the Florida House when Bush was governor, and the two men worked closely together. But that was then. In last week's debate, Bush attacked Rubio for having a poor attendance record in the U.S. Senate, a salvo that Rubio deftly turned back on Bush. Orlando resident John Thompson said he was impressed by what he's seen from Rubio.

JOHN THOMPSON: I liked his response. I think it was - I think it was right on. I think it was something Jeb was probably told to do by his political campaigners. And nobody really likes the mudslinging and the - that was kind of the shining moment of the debate, I think.

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

MILTON APONTE: I'm your constituent. If I elect you to be a senator, I want you to be there on the Senate floor participating, taking the vote, going there and participating in the committees. Do what we elected you to do.

ALLEN: A few days after last week's debate, a Bush campaign document leaked to U.S. News & 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 in targeting Rubio, Bush is making a big mistake. Wilson, who isn't working with any of the presidential candidates, says Rubio isn't the guy who knocked Bush into also-ran status. That was Trump.

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

ALLEN: 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. Wilson says that's why a fresh start for the Bush campaign is so vital.

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

ALLEN: Twenty-two-year-old Brett Robinson is active with the Young Republicans at the University of Central Florida, where he's a student. He's a Bush supporter but agrees it's time that Jeb changed his game.

BRETT ROBINSON: Kind of take a little bit of what Trump has but at the same time show, look, you know, I know what I'm doing. Here's my plan. Here's what I've got to bring to the table.

ALLEN: Bush says this is still just the beginning of the campaign. But he doesn't have a lot of time. While voters in New Hampshire and Iowa have started to pay attention, he hasn't gained any ground. And in just about three months, those voters will begin casting ballots. Greg Allen, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.