The stakes are high and obvious. The jabs are barely veiled.
The field of Republicans running for president is crowded – a dozen so far and counting.
Four of them are residents of Florida, but only two of those are truly representing the Sunshine State in the presidential race – Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Rubio, 44, and Bush, 62, share many parallels in their lives, making it tough for many in their party to make a definitive choice about whom to support.
They both boast Miami-Dade roots, a fluency in Spanish, an organic understanding of Latinos, moderate views on immigration (if not always consistently so) and hard lines on the governments of Cuba and Venezuela.
Their campaign launches were the most Latino of any of the other candidates in either political party. Rubio’s was held at Freedom Tower, a place dear to many Cuban exiles which is owned by Miami Dade Community College. He spoke some words in Spanish and referred to his Cuban immigrant parents.
Bush’s was held in Miami Dade Community College, which is more than 70 percent Latino. He spoke some words in Spanish and mentioned his Mexican-born wife.
So the two, who have led in many of the polls of likely Republican voters, are fighting hard to win the GOP presidential nomination, all the while engaging in a careful choreography of taking stabs at each other without overtly appearing to do so.
Rubio’s approach has been to frame himself as youthful, a candidate of the future, and of a change for the better – on its face a swipe at the Democratic frontrunner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is 67. But it’s also seen as a sideswipe aimed as much at Bush.
The former governor's approach has been to portray himself as a Washington outsider who has a proven record of governing successfully, unlike some rivals who have limited experience and are part of the problem with how the D.C. status quo deals – or doesn't deal – with important issues.
That conjures up images of – you guessed it – Rubio, a junior senator who has been criticized for his lack of experience, drawing comparisons in some quarters to Barack Obama, who was himself a first-term senator when he first ran for president in 2008.
When Bush announced what few found surprising – that he is running for president – his campaign’s designated surrogates did public appearances bringing up Rubio’s limited experience.
Rubio’s campaign, meanwhile, immediately revved up its “yesterday is over” theme, the Tampa Bay Times noted, adding “It was framed as an attack on Clinton, but it just happens to work on another level,” lending itself to being applied to Bush, as well.
"It's awkward for them and awkward for a lot of us," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley to the Times. He said that Rubio’s formidable qualities and momentum so far "has put a lot more people in a waiting posture."
Baxley continued, "If there is potential for a breakout candidate, it's Marco. Of course, the governor has so much history with us."
Some donors in Florida have been torn, too, and are sitting on the sidelines for more signs of which horse to get behind.
Publicly, the two men balk at attempts to pit them against each other.
"It's a little awkward," Bush said of competing with Rubio, his one-time mentee, in a Fox News interview."I mean, look, he's a great guy. I admire him a lot."
Bush then noted: "I think I'm more experienced and qualified than anybody running. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think that I have the skills to fix these things and to lead our country."
"Governors have to make decisions," he said. "Senators don't. They can hide behind their collective body. I wasn't calling out any particular senator."
A veteran Miami-Dade political consultant, David Custin, explained it this way to Politico: “There’s a lot of passion, and this could almost literally come to blows … A lot of us, a lot of my Republican clients, don’t know what to do. They don’t want to pick a side. But they might have to.”
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