ORLANDO — Christina Calderaio, a Floridian from Palm Beach, likes Jeb Bush, and was even wearing a Bush campaign sticker at the first major grassroots GOP event in Florida since the beginning of the campaign.
But that doesn’t mean she thinks he can win.
“He seems like a nice person, but he’s not the best speaker on stage,” said Calderaio. “Even though he is a career politician, he can handle himself in diplomatic situations—and he’s learned a lot from his father’s and brother’s mistakes.”
Fewer and fewer Floridians share even her limited optimism.
For Bush and fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, the event was the first chance to take a comprehensive picture of the reaction back home to their campaign. But in a place where they are both favorite sons, the senator is quickly emerging as more popular than the man who spent eight years as governor—and whom many Republicans in the state recall as a strong one.
“The overall perspective had been that Jeb would break away, and Rubio would be in a good position for the future. Since the last couple debates, that trend has radically changed, and a lot of people think Marco is the frontrunner,” said Mike Haridopolos, a former president of the Florida Senate who has endorsed Mike Huckabee for president.
Much has changed for political operatives in Florida over the course of just a few short months.
The Sunshine State’s political scene had been deeply divided, and the Bush campaign in particular had viewed with special loathing Florida operatives who had decided to line up behind Rubio.
But now Rubio backers chirp loudly about the shift in momentum—they’re getting calls from donors and political figures trying to backpedal from earlier endorsements of Bush, offering explanations of deep ties to the Bush family and suggestions of future support.
Following poll numbers that fell below expectations, Bush’s campaign suffered a dizzying blow at the CNBC debate just over two weeks ago when the former governor went after Rubio for poor attendance in the Senate. It was a clean hit, but it fell flat and Rubio managed to counter it with ease.
For Florida political operatives who know both candidates, Bush’s heart simply wasn’t in the attack. And the broadside also contradicted a central image of the Bush campaign until then: that of a positive, happy warrior.
“Jeb hasn’t been in a competitive race in a long time,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida fundraiser who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Bush campaign and his super PAC. Ballard quit Team Bush after the attack, citing the negative attitude of the campaign. “I still think Jeb has a shot…[but] Marco is certainly the most talented guy on the stage.”
“He’s not the governor that we worked with, and he’s even saying the same thing, he’s not happy with his performances,” said Haridopolos.
In front of this crowd—the people who knew him first, the people who know him best—Bush is shrinking, and fast. Before his Sunshine Summit address, supporters handed out inflatable plastic noisemakers. Attendees smacked them together for a dull thud, not a terrible metaphor for the Bush campaign itself. And remarkably, he didn’t invoke the applause of the entire crowd. As he neared the podium to deliver his remarks, a noticeable portion of the crowd declined to get to their feet.
The former governor delivered a high-energy, vigorous version of his stump speech at the summit, making the hard sell for voters to send “Veto Corleone,” a nickname he garnered as their governor for his aggressive vetoes, to the White House. He spoke about how he wouldn’t be a “divider-in-chief” and argued that the presidential campaign shouldn’t be about who could say the most outrageous thing but who has the most solid conservative record. It was, even his detractors admit, his strongest performance in some time.
But even so, he didn’t wow—he merely survived to propel the campaign forward another day.
Now, neither Bush nor Rubio leads in Florida right now. Real Clear Politics’ polling average has Rubio in third place in Florida, with Bush in fifth. But it is the direction of Rubio’s campaign, the expectation of ascendence, that was palpably felt at the Sunshine Summit.
Following the senator’s introduction by Rep. Tom Rooney, the crowd erupted into applause at the very mention of Rubio. They then leapt to their feet, chanting “Marco!” repeatedly.
“Both parties are to blame for this road that we’re on. [There’s this impression] that there’s no bipartisanship in Washington. There is. That $19 trillion debt is a bipartisan debt,” Rubio said, sounding like his political adversary Sen. Ted Cruz, who frequently rails against the “Washington Cartel.” Later, Rubio adds a subtle jab at Bush: “I don’t come from wealthy or politically connected parents.”
Outside the main ballroom, a few Jeb Bush shirts lay on the table. A few booths down, $45 “Marco Polos” were selling like hotcakes. There is even a feeling of momentum in the merchandise: In the next several weeks, the Rubio campaign is expected to release new branded “Wake Up America” coffee.
“You know that old saying, ‘Look for the campaign where the hot girls are. That’s the winning campaign.’ And in this campaign, they’re all for Rubio,” quipped Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who worked on a pro-Rubio advertisement for GOP donor John Jordan’s super PAC, “Baby Got PAC.” “The kids in the grass roots right now, across Florida…they want to work for Marco or Ted Cruz.”