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Some potential supporters of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are already saying they will instead back Jeb Bush if he runs for president, illustrating the new challenge both men face with Bush now likely to be a 2016 candidate.
While the vast number of influential figures in the Republican Party have not yet said who they support, a slew of political operatives and donors in Florida, including former state party chair Van Poole and ex-RNC finance chairman Al Hoffman, all told the Tampa Times over the last week they would choose Bush over Rubio if the two ran against each other. Several of them suggested Rubio should not run, since he would be fighting important political influencers in his own home state.
Meanwhile, Mel Sembler, who was the Republican National Committee’s finance chair from 1997 to 2000 and then served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Italy, told the Newark Star-Ledger that he was an “admirer” of Christie but will opt for Bush.
Unlike Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who are expected to draw both financial and political support from more conservative and Tea Party parts of the GOP, both Rubio and Christie must win over some of the campaign donors, elected officials and activists who backed George W. Bush and now may align with his brother. And these early endorsements often shape which candidates decide to run versus those who don’t.
"I've been associated with the family since 1979,” Sembler said, referring to the Bushes. “I have a history with them and I will continue that history."
Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who was on Mitt Romney’s finance committee in 2012, told NBC News, “I think Jeb’s time is now. Marco’s time may be now, but it may be later.”
Rubio has said publicly that Bush’s decision will have no impact on his thinking about 2016. The Florida senator is currently scheduled to go on a tour in January to promote his second book, “American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone.” That book release will give him both an opportunity to raise his profile and to gauge enthusiasm around a potential candidacy.
His aides say that Rubio is weighing whether to run for president in 2016 or seek reelection to his Senate seat.
Asked about his candidacy on Wednesday, Christie said he would spend the holidays thinking about it and decide in the “first part of next year,” according to NJ.com. He did not address what Bush’s moves might mean for his own political ambitions.
In interviews, these Republicans said they favored Bush because of his record as governor of Florida, where he cut tax taxes, created the first statewide private school voucher program in the country and strongly opposed abortion rights. They also said he is the candidate best suited to beat Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee.
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar told the Chicago Sun-Times “Jeb would be the strongest candidate for us.”
Bush’s rise also reflects the political blunders of both Rubio and Christie.
Soon after being hailed by TIME Magazine as a potential “savior” of the GOP, Rubio was one of the key architects of a now-stalled immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for people who are undocumented immigrants, annoying conservative activists who had championed him.
The controversy over an improper bridge-closing in New Jersey -- in which some of his top aides were implicated -- has prevented Christie from defining himself solely as a tough-talking Republican who easily won reelection in an overwhelmingly blue state.
While not criticizing Christie, Ballard noted Bush is “scandal-free.”
To be sure, Bush is hardly the juggernaut that Clinton is on the Democratic side. Bush’s announcement last week did not lead to a flood of endorsements or statements of support from current Republican elected officials, who were generally non-committal. And a number of Republicans, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are likely to campaign fusion candidates who can win voters among more moderate Republicans and conservative ones.
“This is not a sign of strength,” said University of Maryland political science professor David Karol, who co-wrote an influential book on the presidential primary process called “The Party Decides.” He was referring to Bush’s early entrance into the race last week.
“It’s a sign he has to reassure people that he wants this,” said Karol. “His brother [George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign) was really able to lay back. I think he’s realizing he’s going to have to do more.”
The Cuban-American Rubio has a unique appeal as a young, non-white candidate, since the 43-year-old is 18 years younger than Bush and would be the first Latino president if elected. (Jeb Bush supporters argue their candidate also has a special connection to Hispanics in part because of his Mexican-American wife Columba and their mixed-race children.)
And neither Rubio nor Christie would be as closely linked as Jeb Bush to the legacy of George W. Bush, who left office with very low poll numbers.
Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, a major GOP fundraiser, said last week he would remain behind Christie. Rubio has strong backers outside of Florida that also may decide to stand with him.
“This is far from settled,” said Katon Dawson, the former South Carolina Republican Party chair who is backing Tex. Gov. Rick Perry.
He added, “we have a lot of talent in our party.”