By David Adams @dadams7308
Jeb Bush’s early exit from the Republican primary contest on Saturday night was a stunning blow to a family dynasty seeking its third presidential nominee.
But the big question going forward is who benefits from his absence on the campaign trail.
While most pundits predict Bush’s supporters will now jump on the Marco Rubio bandwagon, boosting the Florida Senator’s status as the only candidate who can catch current front-runner Donald Trump, this may not be such a certainty.
As Florida political observers are well aware, there is little love lost between Rubio and his one time mentor. That is not just the result of a heated campaign, but dates back well before this race to issues of style and substance, including differences over immigration policy.
When the former Florida governor entered the race a year ago as the front-runner, he had a huge financial advantage and a strong resume, besides his family pedigree. The vast sums of money raised by the pro-Bush Super PAC, Right to Rise, were expected to dissuade a challenge by Rubio, who many Bush supporters view as an overly ambitious political opportunist.
But Bush, 63, never fired up voters on the campaign trail and his stiff, wonkish style, coupled with political fatigue over his establishment last name and unpopular defense of immigrants, saw him quickly fall in the polls.
In private Bush supporters make little secret of their disdain for Rubio’s rise through the political ranks of the Florida Republican party, leaving other more experienced politicians in his wake. During the campaign Bush repeatedly tried to play up Rubio's inexperience and lack of political achievements, both in Florida’s legislature and the U.S. Senate. "Some of Bush's supporters will follow Marco, but the older, more loyal, diehards have always viewed him as a younger son who needed to wait his turn,” said Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist who directed Barack Obama’s campaign in the state in 2008.
He recalled playing golf with a group of Bush activist early last year before Rubio entered the race. “They were almost indignant about the idea of him (Rubio) getting in,” Schale said.
“For the true Jeb people there is a sense that Rubio running was a betrayal.”
By Saturday, Bush’s campaign was running out of money. According to the Federal Election Commission his super PAC, Right to Rise, which raised more than $100 million last year, had collected only $380,000 in January. Meanwhile, Rubio's super PAC netted $2.4 million in the same period, including a $1 million check from Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
Where Bush’s voters decide to put their support remains an open question. Campaign insiders say Bush is unlikely to endorse another candidate until after the Republican party convention makes its official nomination in July.
Bush supporter and former Florida Republican Party of Florida chairman, Al Cardenas, said he expected his friend to “digest everything that has transpired, think things through and determine what's best for the country before taking any further political steps.”
Analysts now expect to see cash from Bush's financial supporters switch to Rubio’s camp, but will voters follow suit? According to one poll earlier this month Bush’ voters are evenly divided over their second choice between Rubio (19%), Ohio Governor John Kasich (16%), Texas Senator Ted Cruz (12%), New York billionaire Donald Trump (11%), and neurosurgeon Ben Carson (9%), with another 23% saying they don’t know yet.
After his strong finish on Saturday, Rubio offered kind words for Bush saying he has “incredible affection and respect” for his former mentor, describing him as a good husband, father and governor of Florida. “I pray for him and his family tonight,” he said.
Bush also made a gracious exit Saturday night, but he noticeably made no mention whatsoever of Rubio.
Cardenas was one of many Bush supporters last night who blamed defeat on a media too easily beguiled by the Rubio’s charm and cleverly packaged brand of new generation conservatism. “Can't wait for the victory speech & pliant press chorus,” Cardenas tweeted Saturday night before Rubio spoke, noting that he has failed to win a single primary race. “It’s not fair,” he tweeted in another post commenting on coverage of the campaign.
Another Florida Bush supporter, CNN commentator Ana Navarro, tried to put on a brave face tweeting that she requested 2 chocolate chip cookies from a flight attendant, despite being on a low-card diet.
“Sometimes, u need more than lettuce to get thru the night,” she added. Also a good friend of Rubio, Navarro did not say who she is backing now.