TAMPA — As recently as six months ago, Florida, a state with a poor record for producing presidential candidates, appeared to be striking gold at last.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio were among the top three or four candidates, sometimes at the very top, in nearly every poll of Republicans on the 2016 presidential nomination. They had starring roles at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa one year ago this week, with Rubio introducing nominee Mitt Romney.
Today, things look different.
Both have dropped in polls, and some prominent analysts aren’t even including Bush in their rankings because of questions about whether he’ll run.
Both have been undercut by the Republican Party’s rapid shift to the right. Once seen as the conservative cutting edge of the party, both are now viewed with suspicion by the increasingly ideological GOP base and the tea party movement, largely because of their signature issues — education for Bush and immigration for Rubio.
Political experts say this could be just a temporary drop in Bush’s and Rubio’s standings.
The two Floridians have been momentarily eclipsed by fresh faces, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, who are being called the new Republican “shiny objects” by some, but the Floridians are likely to remain among the top contenders and regain ground.
“Even though people like Paul and Cruz have emerged in the public eye, it’s hard to see any other Republican contender with the staying power that Rubio and Bush have,” said veteran Republican operative Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
He compared the situation to a singer who has a brief flare of popularity while an established star remains popular over time.
“Bono might not be on the cover of Rolling Stone every month, but he’s there for the long haul,” said Schnur. Bush and Rubio “are the two Republicans best positioned to reach out to the establishment and the base, as well, in the long term.”
For the moment, though, it’s tough to see grounds for Schnur’s optimism.
Called a traitor and a “RINO,” or “Republican in name only,” over immigration reform by some of his earliest backers among the tea party movement, Rubio has been using the August recess to mend fences.
Once the immigration bill passed the Senate, Rubio dropped the subject, declining to lobby for House passage, and instead took a high-profile role on issues appealing to the base — a ban on abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation and a drive to halt implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, even if it requires shutting down the government.
He has been holding private, closed-door meetings with tea party activists in Florida, pushing his Obamacare ideas. He defends his immigration reform stance when asked about it.
Bush, who built a national reputation as leader of the conservative education reform movement, has been savaged by the right wing over his backing of “Common Core” federal standards for education and his close ties to Tony Bennett, former Florida education commissioner. Bennett resigned in a scandal over news reports that he inflated a charter school’s grade to benefit a political donor in Indiana, where he previously was school superintendent.
Bennett was a protege of Bush, who argued for Bennett’s appointment in Florida, and was chairman of Chiefs for Change, an organization of education leaders Bush founded.
Some view Bush’s work on education as the foundation for a presidential bid; he’s been working on the issue through nonprofit foundations since 1994.
Bashing Bush in the influential conservative journal National Review, commentator Michelle Malkin didn’t spare invective: “Bennett’s disgraceful grade-fixing scandal is the perfect symbol of all that’s wrong with the federal education schemes peddled by Bennett and his mentor, former GOP governor Jeb Bush: phony academic standards, crony contracts, and big-government and big-business collusion masquerading as ‘reform.’ ”
He also was blasted for flip-flopping when he opposed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in a book published this year. He had supported the concept previously.
Bush has stuck to his guns in defending Bennett. “Thanks to Tony’s leadership, children are better prepared for success,” Bush said in a news release after Bennett’s resignation.
He also dismissed his conservative critics in a June interview with Christian Broadcasting Network, saying if he runs for president, “I will be able to, I think, manage my way through all the chirpers out there.”
One influential pundit, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, isn’t including Bush in his rankings of presidential candidates because of comments by Bush son George P. Bush at the university’s Center for Politics late last year.
Asked about his father’s presidential ambitions, George P. Bush, now running for office in Texas himself, told a crowd at the Center for Politics his father “enjoys his role ... as a voice of reason within the Republican Party and ... an elder statesman. There’s ways to influence politics without actually having being an elected official, which I think he’s enjoying.”
Jeb Bush’s mother, Barbara Bush, has also said she doesn’t think he should run, but Bush laughed off her comments.
Polls, meantime, tell a story of fickle Republicans backing away from the two Florida leaders, at least temporarily.
A Public Policy Polling survey of Republicans in February, for example, had Rubio in first place with 22 percent, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan second at 15 percent and Bush tied for third with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 13 percent.
But in July, a McClatchy-Marist poll showed Rubio in third and Bush in fourth, and a Public Policy Polling survey showed Rubio dropping to sixth place. A June Rasmussen poll showed Rubio’s approval ratings dropping by double figures among Republicans, to 58 percent.
“It’s not surprising when you’re 31⁄2 years out that there’s going to be a lot of changing places,” said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican.
“What you’ve seen in the past few months is that Christie has emerged as a favorite of so many people, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see his fortunes rise and fall like any other candidate.”
Paulson said he still hopes Bush or Rubio will change presidential fortunes among contenders from Florida, the fourth most-populous state: “Our presidential history has been pretty bleak — Reubin Askew and Bob Graham, our two most serious candidates in years, were both dismal failures.”
In their most recent “Crystal Ball” ranking of the candidates, Sabato and co-author Kyle Kondik moved Rubio to fourth, outside their “top tier” of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Christie and Paul.
But in an interview, Kondik called Rubio “still viable ... I think there are a lot of people writing him off, and I think they’re doing so wrongly.”
He speculated that Bush is dangling the possibility of a presidential race only to keep his profile high and increase the impact of his work on education, but if Bush did run, “He’d be in that first tier.”