Hints of rivalry surface as Rubio and Bush weigh 2016 presidential bids

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) are bumping elbows as both work to establish leadership roles on immigration and education reform while weighing 2016 presidential bids.

Bush on Friday appeared to criticize Rubio’s strategy for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws through a series of small bills instead of a comprehensive package as “shortsighted and self-defeating,” although he did not name Rubio.

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“Some policy makers are calling for piecemeal changes — such as issuing visas for high-skilled workers and investors, or conferring legal status on immigrants who were illegally brought to the country as children,” Bush wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. “Congress should avoid such quick fixes and commit itself instead to comprehensive immigration reform.

“Such an approach is shortsighted and self-defeating. Border security is inextricably intertwined with other aspects of immigration policy. The best way to prevent illegal immigration is to make sure that we have a fair and workable system of legal immigration,” he wrote.

Rubio is the most prominent advocate on Capitol Hill for a piecemeal approach to passing immigration reform legislation, a strategy that has yet to win the support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading authority on the issue, or Democratic leaders.

“One massive piece of legislation, bill, is probably not the right approach, but I do think we need a comprehensive package, several bills,” Rubio told The Hill in December. “Not 10, but maybe three or four that sequentially address these issues in a coordinated way.”

At an event sponsored by Politico last month, Rubio said: "Portions of immigration reform can be dealt with quicker than others." 

Bush’s comments appeared to be a jab at Rubio, who could become a rival for the GOP presidential nomination if Bush decides to go for it.

The Wall Street Journal, citing the former governor’s close aides and friends, reported earlier this month that Bush is actively weighing a run, unlike in the 2012 cycle when he did not seriously consider it.

Rubio visited Iowa shortly after Election Day, fueling speculation that he is laying the groundwork for a national campaign.

“Absolutely they’re potential rivals in 2016. I think part of it is they have the same end goals with respect to education, immigration reform,” said Ford O’Connell, an adviser to the McCain-Palin 2008 presidential campaign.

“What Rubio is talking about basically speaks to a Republican primary and what Jeb Bush is talking about speaks to a general election. It’s not that their goals are any different and that’s where we get to the difference between the piecemeal and the all in,” he said.

There have been other signs of friction between the Rubio and Bush worlds.

Jeb Bush Jr. — Jeb Bush’s son — recently criticized Rubio for declining to say in an interview with GQ magazine how old he thinks the planet is.

“Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that,” Rubio said.

Bush called the response “strange” and “kind of a head-scratching type of answer.”

Other Republican strategists have a different take. They think Rubio, who faces reelection for his Senate seat in 2016, would not run in the presidential primary if Bush entered the race.

They see Bush’s criticism of the piecemeal approach as founded on substantive concerns that Rubio may be negotiating with himself by proposing what some critics call "immigration reform-lite."

Some proponents of immigration reform speculate that Rubio is advancing cautiously on immigration reform to protect himself from conservative criticism in a future Iowa caucus or South Carolina primary.

Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Rubio wants to accomplish comprehensive reform, just in steps.

He said Bush’s criticism of a piecemeal approach “may be a sincere difference of opinion rather than a veiled attack.”

Aguilar said Rubio has expressed openness to passing comprehensive reform as a complete package, if the debate takes that course.

“Procedurally it’s piecemeal. Policy wise and politically, it’s not piecemeal,” he said.

Immigration and education reform have important implications for 2016. Republicans realize they must do more to appeal to Hispanic and women voters. These issues could help them gain traction.

Bush has focused on education policy throughout his career in public service. As governor of Florida, he received plaudits for boosting state reading scores and high-school graduation rates. He implemented grading systems for schools and directed extra funding to those that did well and offered vouchers to students at failing schools. He fought social promotion in schools and expanded access to charter schools.

More recently, he has worked with governors to advance new education legislation, introducing them to what he calls the "Florida formula." He has raised millions of dollars for his Foundation for Excellence in Education Reform, which held its national summit in Washington in November.

Rubio staked his marker in the education-reform debate last week when he delivered a speech at the Chamber of Commerce calling for policy changes to improve the skills of the American workforce.

Education is not a high-profile topic in Washington, but some Republicans see it, along with immigration reform, as crucial to winning a key part of the electorate: women voters.

“We need a champion in both areas. We lost the last election at the PTA meeting and the Hispanic chamber of commerce. Jeb Bush wins elections at the PTA meeting and Hispanic chamber,” said Don Gaetz, president of the Florida Senate and a Bush acolyte.

Gaetz said Rubio would not challenge Bush in the presidential primary.

“I don’t think so. Marco Rubio’s political godfather is Jeb Bush. I don’t see any way they run against each other for any office,” he said.

Bush endorsed Rubio in the 2010 Florida Senate race after his opponent, Charlie Crist, dropped out of the GOP to run as an independent.

Bush presented Rubio with a samurai sword after Rubio became speaker of the Florida House in 2006, a gesture interpreted as passing on the mantle of conservative leadership in the state capitol.

John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked for McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, doubts Bush and Rubio will square off against each other in four years.

“I don’t know if there’s rivalry there yet. You have someone who would be the frontrunner in Bush and you have someone who is very ambitious and in his shadow and wanting to position himself for a run if he could,” he said. “That could cause some friction among staff.

“I don’t sense a rivalry. If Jeb Bush runs, Marco can’t run,” he added.