Bush-Rubio rivalry breaks out

The long-simmering rivalry between Jeb Bush and Marco RubioMarco RubioGroups unendorse Grayson after domestic violence allegations Trump postpones Hispanic roundtable Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense MORE has finally spilled out into the open.

For months now, the Florida Republicans have battled behind the scenes. The two presidential campaigns have pushed opposition research, battled for activists and donors, and taken frequent implied swipes at one another.

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But with Rubio besting Bush in the last three national polls, Bush this week pulled back the curtain. Twice in two days, the former governor publicly sought to draw a distinction between him and the first-term senator, whose political star rose under Bush’s governorship.

“Marco was a member of the House of Representatives when I was governor, and he followed my lead and I'm proud of that,” Bush said in an interview on MSNBC on Thursday.

“It’s not known,” Bush added, whether Rubio has the leadership skills needed to be president. He pointed to President Obama as an example of what happens when the country elects a young senator. 

Rubio has so far held his fire.

Supporters for Bush and Rubio seemed relieved that the tension has finally boiled over. Members of each camp believe they’re well-positioned to meet the other head-on.

On the Bush side, donors, bundlers and campaign aides interviewed by The Hill said they were happy to see Bush flex his muscles against Rubio, who many view as his chief rival for the establishment mantle in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Jeb has been criticized for not being aggressive enough,” one prominent Bush bundler told The Hill. “You’re going see a more aggressive Jeb Bush from here on out. ... You’ll see him be more assertive and going after Rubio falls within that context.”

And Bush’s supporters believe he has homed in on an effective line of attack against Rubio. 

They believe that by relentlessly pitching himself as an experienced, reform-minded governor, that conservatives will coalesce around him once the outsider candidates fade and voters seek a mainstream Republican to lead the party.

“Jeb is easily the most prepared, so he needs to raise that issue. It’s easily the biggest difference between himself and Rubio,” one major Bush donor said. “It’s the biggest difference between any governor and senator. Governors have to make the decisions every day that prepare you to be commander in chief on day one.”

On the Rubio side, the message from supporters was similarly enthusiastic.

They say the attacks are evidence Bush is feeling threatened.

“I don’t know if he’s desperate, but it’s starting to stink like he is,” said Peter Brown, a top Rubio donor in South Carolina. “He’s on the verge of becoming invisible in this race, and all of the sudden, look who he’s going after.” 

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who is supporting Rubio for president, said Bush’s portrayal of Rubio as inexperienced won’t hold.

“Do you really want to boil it down to who the more tenured politician is in an election cycle when voters have shown no interest in government experience?” he asked.

Regardless, Rooney argued, Rubio rose from city council in the Miami area, to House Speaker at the Florida Statehouse, to an influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who will have a full term under his belt by the end of 2016.

Rooney said Rubio’s experience as Speaker “herding cats in a statehouse with term limits” required more leadership “than just saying what you’ll veto and won’t veto.”

“Look, Jeb doesn’t want to go after Marco,” Rooney said. “He was hoping Marco would be wallowing low in the polls and would have dropped out by now. But now the guy in fifth place has to go after the guy who is ahead of him. They wouldn’t bother with Marco if they didn’t think he wasn’t taking Jeb’s support.”

The jockeying comes at a critical juncture for both campaigns, which have been slowed by the rise of political outsiders.

Bush and Rubio are neck and neck in the polls, and while they sit firmly in the second tier of candidates, they trail businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson by significant margins. 

Rubio is in fourth place nationally, with 9.5 percent support, and Bush is in fifth place, at 9 percent, according to the RealClearPoltics average of polls.

Rubio appears to have the momentum, however. He has surpassed Bush in the polls in the weeks since the last Republican debate and looks more like the formidable challenger many believed he’d be all along.

“It looks like Bush has recognized that Rubio is the biggest threat to his campaign in terms of solidifying the establishment vote, so he’s trying to big-foot Marco,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who is unaffiliated. “It’s not vicious, it’s just a little jab.”

Bush has raised enormous sums of money, put together the most expansive campaign apparatus of GOP candidates and has landed countless endorsements. But the conservative base has so far tuned him out, and he has not been the force in the race that many believed he’d be.

Rubio, meanwhile, has long been the darling of the conservative pundit class. But it’s taken him months to scratch his way up to this point in the polls, and overcoming Bush, who has far deeper political ties, will remain a heavy lift.

But following Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s stunning decline, Bush and Rubio are now the favorites in the establishment lane of the race. Walker dropped out last week.

And even with the huge percentage of support currently claimed by the outsiders, many still believe an establishment figure will emerge as a top challenger.

“This fight is breaking out right now because of the way the field has emerged at this particular moment,” the Bush bundler said. “This rivalry between Jeb and Marco is going to drag on, so it was smart to get the conversation around them going now.”