Bush vs. Rubio: What Really Happened In Florida

Ed J. Pozzuoli President, Tripp Scott
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When our country needs leaders, America will look to Florida, which has usurped the role that New York once played when it produced Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. Recently I wrote that as a demographic snapshot of America’s near-term future, Florida is a natural testing ground for the ethnically-fractured politics that may face us. Florida is the third-most populous U.S. state, after Texas and California, but unlike those states, it is not solidly locked up by a single party. Florida’s prized 29 electoral votes are an absolute must for any Republican seeking residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And now we have two presidential hopefuls, both from Florida, competing for the same slot in the race.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have much in common. Both are center-right candidates from Miami-Dade with strong conservative credentials. What separate them are issues of style, experience, and relationships.

While interloper Hillary Clinton was not so much elected as anointed a U.S. Senator in New York, Florida did not make it easy for Jeb. His first run for governor ended in a loss after he was “he-cooned” by the wily Lawton Chiles. Lessons from that loss produced a more mature candidate, who four years later won by an overwhelmingly 11 point spread in 1998.

Once in office, Bush masterfully seized control of the agenda, and we are still enjoying the broad conservative legacy he left behind — lower spending, lower taxes, fewer needless regulations, and successful education reform. Indeed, Bush earned the nickname “Don Veto” for purposefully using his veto power to reduce “pork barrel” spending. Under his executive leadership, “principle over politics” and “action over talk” were common themes in a Jeb-led Florida.

Many key figures in Florida Republican politics fondly remember the Bush governorship, and almost all of them are committed already, or strongly leaning, to Bush. Any assertion that Jeb Bush is not a conservative is just wholly inconsistent with his record as governor here. Jeb Bush was, and remains, the conservative force in Florida.

With regards to Rubio, while the Clinton story is littered with scandal, and controversy, Marco’s family story, now well known, is as much inspirational as it is truly American.  From the beginning of his political career, Rubio has shown a knack for catching lightning in a bottle: At age 28, he moved from a city commission slot to the Florida House by running in a special election, then won the loyalty of Republican legislators — who elected him Speaker of the House. Rubio’s policy priorities were spelled up in his “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future,” of which about a third were enacted in some form.

When Charlie Crist was still a Republican, with a 70 percent favorability rating, Rubio challenged him for the U.S. Senate — with Jeb Bush’s crucial support, by the way. Despite Crist’s apparently insurmountable odds of success in the race, Rubio’s timing turned out to be impeccable, and he rode the Tea Party wave all the way to the U.S. Senate. Now this well-spoken first term senator seeks the presidency. Make no mistake, Rubio has his own followers and will get his share of national supporters drawn to his story, youth and vision.

Without a doubt, both Bush and Rubio turn Florida from purple to red in the general election. For now, Florida is a winner-take-all primary, so finishing second in the Republican primary does not matter. The Florida primary is not until March 15, 2016 so timing and momentum will both be factors. Historically, Florida has not provided a safety net for candidates who did not fare well in earlier primaries — just ask Rudy Giuliani.

Republican voters have consistently favored ex-governors over senators. Particularly after President Obama, Jeb’s executive experience and record of actually governing is a big advantage. As Chris Ruddy of Newsmax wrote recently, Americans are sick of the amateur hour we have endured for the past eight years under a former one-term U.S. senator playing at being president. In a world that seems to be spinning out of control, many Republican voters are deeply anxious and crave, first and foremost, a competent, trustworthy leader. In addition, the Bushes are beloved by a vast majority of the military. However, the “not another Bush” sentiment shared among some voters may counter their desire to elect an experienced executive. These voters, many of whom might not have an independent memory of Jeb governing, conflate him as a governor with his family members in the White House. But he’s not a Bush; he’s Jeb.

Jeb was reelected by 13 percent — a landslide anywhere, but especially in Florida — back in 2002. But as Tampa Bay reporter Adam Smith observed, “part of what makes Florida such a challenging state politically is its fast changing and ever growing nature” and “only 28% of currently active Florida voters participated in either of Bush’s past two elections.” That said, the Bush legacy in Florida runs deep (ironically, Rubio’s part of it), and reaches across all of Florida’s diverse communities in the state’s 67 counties. One theme in Jeb’s announcement seemed to be, “I can get it done, because I did get it done in Florida,” which is about as close to a microcosm of the nation’s diversity as anywhere. Jeb Bush delivered in Florida, and he can deliver in the U.S.

Convention suggests that Rubio’s Cuban roots automatically lock up the Hispanic vote. But like most things in Florida, it’s not that simple. Jeb has lived and worked in Miami since the early 1980s and was the chair of the county Republican party. He moved seamlessly between Anglo and Hispanic community leaders. Being fully bilingual was helpful, but the time and commitment to the Party and the community are what will reap strong returns for Jeb. One could say that Jeb Bush was Florida’s first Hispanic governor.

As a Floridian I have watched and admired both men up close, but ultimately I want a candidate who can lead first by beating Hillary Clinton. Jeb Bush has most of the built-in advantages. However, Rubio should not be underestimated, especially if he can catch lightning in a bottle again.

The diversity of Florida’s people, its communities and its businesses provided the crucible that has prepared and shaped both candidates. It’s never easy in Florida, but nothing worthy ever is. Florida is in for a long hot summer.

Ed J. Pozzuoli is the president of Florida-based law firm Tripp Scott. He was the co-chairman of Jeb Bush for Governor (Broward). He also served as an integral member of the Bush/Cheney legal team in the 2000 presidential recount litigation. He is an active member of the Republican Party and served as the chairman of the Republican Party in Broward County, Florida.