BY BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Former Gov. Jeb Bush’s decision this weekend to suspend his presidential campaign appears to have brought an end to a family feud among Florida Republicans, with many of those who had endorsed Bush quickly swinging their support behind U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio still faces major challenges in his bid to become the GOP’s presidential nominee in the November election. But having elected officials in his home state coalesce behind his candidacy could boost Rubio’s odds of grabbing Florida’s 99 delegates to the Republican National Convention this summer. To win the nomination, a candidate needs 1,236 delegates.
Bush dropped out the race on Feb. 20 after a disappointing fourth-place showing in the South Carolina primary. By Monday, a steady stream of Republicans who had backed Bush when he seemed like the inevitable nominee were lining up behind the only full-time Floridian left in the race.
More state support
In South Florida, three current Republican members of Congress and a former GOP congressman who had all backed Bush announced jointly Monday that they had switched to Rubio.
“From our days in the Florida Legislature, I’ve known Marco Rubio to be a principled man committed to public service,” U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said in a statement. “This commitment and his vision for the future of this great nation make him the strongest candidate for the Republican nomination.”
Congressman Jeff Miller of Northwest Florida also moved to back the state’s junior senator, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
It was a trend that was expected to continue.
“Most Floridians, at least in the political world, supported Governor Bush and now, I suppose, will endorse Marco Rubio,” said J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a lobbyist and longtime Bush adviser.
Stipanovich said he had already cast his ballot for Bush through early voting before the South Carolina results came in, but would likely have voted for Rubio if he had waited until after Bush’s announcement.
Bush’s exit within the first month of voting in the GOP primaries was a surprise. In addition to dozens of endorsements inside and outside of Florida, the son of one president and brother of another had raised $100 million before officially entering the race.
But the decision by Rubio, a former speaker of the state House and a sort of protégé of Bush, to challenge the former governor caused several members of the state GOP to feel conflicted about their votes.
“I worked closely with both of them and, like a lot of folks, had had some angst about shared loyalties and awareness of these two leaders,” state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said.
That feud came to a head last weekend.
“However we feel about it, it’s been resolved in South Carolina,” Baxley said.
State Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, also acknowledged the tension.
“It was heartbreaking for me to watch Marco and Jeb go at it and split the vote,” he said. “Now that we have one Floridian, one candidate … I think Marco Rubio is the guy for the job, and I think he’ll be the next president.”
‘Still in mourning’
Others still weren’t ready to jump. The Rubio campaign called state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, on Feb. 21 to ask for his support. But Gaetz said Monday he hasn’t decided what to do.
“I am still in mourning. … I wasn’t just for Jeb Bush. I have been a Jeb Bush acolyte since before he was governor. His defeat was like a death in the family,” said Gaetz, a former Senate president.
Helping to rally state Republican leaders behind Rubio is the fear that real-estate tycoon Donald Trump, who has proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and touts his plan to build a border wall, could win the nomination. Trump narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses before winning primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Many Republicans, especially among elected officials, fear that Trump could be a disastrous nominee in the general election.
“The stop-Trump train is really what’s going down the track right now,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
Dems chair responds
Democrats were quick to try to play down the advantages Rubio might get from the switched endorsements.
“If these politicians couldn’t help Jeb overcome the Trump machine, what makes them think they can help put Rubio – who lost every single delegate in South Carolina to Trump – over the top?” asked Allison Tant, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, in a statement.
Where the candidates stand in Florida isn’t entirely clear. GOP voters in other states have shown they are willing this year to buck the establishment. And few if any polls of Florida have been released in the last month.
“I think it’s still a state that’s up for grabs,” MacManus said.
And the man who would represent the biggest potential Florida endorsement for Rubio is still recovering from his loss. Stipanovich said he hasn’t spoken to Bush since the governor dropped out, but barring a surprising endorsement for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, there were likely only two alternatives.
“I think the choice is probably between endorsing Marco and not doing anything right now,” Stipanovich said.