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National Politics

Were RNC speeches campaign scripts for Rubio, Jeb Bush?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 01:47 AM

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TAMPA -

Starring roles at the RNC for Florida's two leading Republicans, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, are sure to arouse speculation about whether they could end up competing against each other on the national stage.

Friends and backers say a contest between the two close allies is highly unlikely. "I know for a fact that will never happen," said consummate Florida GOP insider Al Cardenas, a key ally for both.

But Florida Republicans, who longed for a Bush candidacy this year, feel sure one or both will be a national candidate in the next decade.

Bush-Rubio 2016 if Romney loses? Bush-Rubio or Rubio-Somebody 2020 if Romney wins?

GOP insiders say the possibilities are open, and grassroots Republicans are eager to see it.

"There are always possibilities for people seen as thought leaders in our party," said Sally Bradshaw, a veteran GOP strategist and key Bush adviser.

The two were among the most sought-after figures at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week.

Rubio, a star of state delegation breakfasts, has been mobbed everywhere by scrums of reporters.

Bush has made as many speeches and appearances as his staff could get him to, more than 10, and turned away more than he accepted, said aide Jaryn Emhof.

Of the two, Rubio's potential national ambition has been more obvious. He worked to position himself as a running mate, doing "opposition research" checks on himself and moving up publication of his autobiography, even while saying he didn't want the job.

At 41, he has years to watch and wait.

"I think he'd be the first to tell you that having been in the Senate for two years isn't the preparation you need – Barack Obama did that and we've seen the consequences," said Tallahassee Republican operative Rick Wilson.

Asked about his future by reporters Wednesday, Rubio said, "I'm honored to be mentioned in those discussions … and I'm honored to serve in the US Senate. That's where I wanted to be, that's what I ran for."

His Thursday night speech repeated the themes of his 2010 Senate campaign – American exceptionalism and how it enabled his family's success as economic refugees from Cuba.

In a line from countless 2010 stump speeches, he recounted how his father worked as a banquet bartender. "He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room."

The moving story, with Rubio's charismatic delivery, has stirred conservative crowds and did so again Thursday – with one minor but glaring glitch, just as he brought the speech to a close.

He said "the story of our time" should be, "We did not allow fear to cause us to abandon what made us special. We chose more government instead of more freedom" – meaning the opposite. Then he closed with, "We chose Mitt Romney to lead our nation. And because we did, the American miracle lived on for another generation to inherit."

At 59, Bush's future appears more complicated.

Friends said he likes promoting the careers of his two sons, Jeb Bush Jr. and George P. Bush, and education reforms as head of his Foundation for Excellence in Education – maybe more than holding high office himself.

Another complication: the damage to the family reputation from the administration of his brother, George W. Bush.

Bush's recent higher political profile is a great way to combat that problem, political experts said. His actions in Tampa contrast with the 2008 convention, which he didn't attend.

His brother's stigma "is diminishing as a problem with time and will continue to do so," said University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan. "I see him promoting the Romney-Ryan ticket from Tampa, and suspect he is working on his profile."

Bush's speech focused on education reform but he added an opening not included in the advance text, seemingly designed to combat the image problem.

It defended his brother and suggested President Barack Obama should stop blaming him for the nation's economic problems – but it also implicitly acknowledged dissatisfaction with the Bush presidency.

He praised his father's service, then said, "And my brother, well, I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe."

Bush said in a June CBS interview that if he wanted to run for president, 2012 may have been his best chance.

"I think there's a window of opportunity in life for all sorts of reasons and this was probably my time," he said.

State Sen. John Thrasher, a long-time ally of Jeb and a Rubio supporter, questioned whether Bush has presidential ambitions – even though he, like many Florida Republicans, has been eager to see it.

"How many times have I offered to go to Iowa for him?" Thrasher mused. "Now he's going to Iowa to campaign for Romney."

"It's not in Jeb's daily routine to get up and think about running for president," he said. "It might be in Marco's."

For Bush to run, he said, "It would have to be a calling, something really important for America. People would have to reach out to him in a big way."

Cardenas said Bush's window is not closed at age 59.

"I know his heart beats for public service," Cardenas said.

"In four, eight or even 12 years the option will be there. He's in good shape. It's not easy to stay relevant for that amount of time, but he's managed to do that."

Cardenas said Bush and Rubio "have too much love and respect between them" ever to run against each other for office.

If circumstances led them both to consider the possibility at the same time, he said, "that's a conversation they'll have, and I won't be in the room."


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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