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Forgive Me Mentor, For I Will Run

How Marco Rubio could end Jeb Bush's electoral career

Michele Even Sandberg/Corbis

It’s election night, November 2, 2010, and Jeb Bush is all alone on stage at Marco Rubio’s victory rally. As supporters and photographers await the arrival of the new conservative star, Bush takes his substantial six-foot-three-inch frame a few steps toward the audience, clapping and cajoling them to join him in a chant: “Mar-co! Mar-co! Mar-co!” He moves stage left, where the cameras are waiting, still alone, still chanting, like a helicopter parent cheering from the sidelines. Finally, several awkward minutes later, Rubio emerges, enabling Bush to slink toward the back.

Such public shows of affection have occurred frequently over the last couple of years. “I have a special place in my heart for him,” Bush told Charlie Rose in June 2012. “It’s hard to describe the pride I feel for his incredible success.”

When Rose asked Bush about his own decision not to run for president that year, his paternal façade began to crack. “I’ve got personal reasons,” he said, blinking furiously, “family reasons that overwhelmed any other considerations.” He continued, speaking rapidly: “I don’t know, this may be a Bush trait, maybe it isn’t, but I made the decision, and I made the decision. I moved on.”

But Bush hasn’t moved on. In early March, he went on NBC’s “Today” show and confirmed he was again considering the financial and familial implications of a White House run. “I won’t [rule it out], but I’m not going to declare today, either,” Bush said. He also muddied his stance on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, breaking with his more lenient past position and looking increasingly serious about 2016. Bush has much to consider—the baggage attached to his last name, his willingness to subject his gilded reputation to a grotesque primary process, his own sons’ electoral ambitions, the privacy of his nonpolitical wife and daughter. But he must also untangle his sense of loyalty and obligation to Rubio, because what Bush decides will have major implications for the career of the political superstar he has so generously nurtured.

Chip Litherland/The New York Times/Redux
Bush led the cheers the night Rubio clinched his Senate seat in 2010.

“I don’t think Marco would want to run against Jeb in a primary, the way their relationship is,” J. C. Planas, a former South Florida legislator who has worked with both men, told me. “But you never know, just because of the way things work. If Jeb became president, more than likely it means Marco probably never would.”

Florida Republicans, whose state has never produced a president, approach the prospect of their running against each other somewhere on the spectrum between disbelief and dread. “It’s hard for me to imagine, maybe because I so badly don’t want [it to happen],” says someone who knows them both. “I cannot fathom anybody in Marco’s orbit doing anything to harm Jeb Bush, or vice versa.”

Rubio first came into Bush’s orbit in 1996, when he worked on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. Even then, says former State Representative Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Rubio was a standout. “With Marco, we always knew,” he told me in his office, sitting beneath a wall of photographs taken with various members of the Bush clan, a common feature of Florida political lairs. “It was pretty clear that he would be successful.” Bush was by then considered the de facto head of Florida’s GOP, and when a 26-year-old Rubio made his first run for the West Miami City Commission in 1998, Bush gave Rubio a $50 contribution and called him on election night to congratulate him—a sign to his contemporaries that Rubio was a man to watch.

Bush had won as the first Southern Republican since Reconstruction to preside over a legislature entirely under GOP control. In that friendly political environment, he undertook a thoroughly conservative agenda: cutting taxes, trimming state workforce rolls, toughening testing standards, and adding new voucher programs. Two years later, Rubio joined the legislature in a special election, just before a sizable freshman class was elected thanks to a new term-limit rule for lawmakers. “Jeb was really the father of that huge freshman class,” says State Representative Dennis Baxley, a colleague of Rubio’s, and he was famously accessible by e-mail to its members. (Bush, who was so fond of his BlackBerry it was featured in his official portrait, has since upgraded to an iPhone. He did not, however, respond to questions e-mailed to him for this article; through their offices, both men declined to be interviewed.)

In 2000, Rubio threw himself into the drudgery of redistricting, winning favor among legislative leaders and influence among colleagues. Bush was drawn to his ambition and ideology, seeing what by then many politicos were also seeing—an articulate messenger of conservative principles who could someday help to slow the national party’s disastrous backslide with Hispanic voters.

It was a common bond. Bush had long used his national platform to admonish members of his own party for alienating Latinos, and he was admired in South Florida for a record of respect for his Hispanic constituents that extends beyond his professional life. (His wife, Columba, was born in Mexico, and Jeb is bilingual.) “He’s practically Cuban, just taller,” Rubio has said. “He speaks Spanish better than some of us.”

When Rubio was named speaker of the Florida House, Bush presented him with the “sword of Chang”—a reappropriation of former President George H. W. Bush’s teasing tennis-court threat to “unleash Chiang” Kai-shek, the Chinese dictator. Chang, Bush told Rubio, “is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society.” Rubio adored the sword and kept it on the wall in the speaker’s office.

Their relationship cemented after Bush left the governor’s mansion. Rubio made it his mission to shift the premier policy-making role from the chief executive’s office to the legislature he now ran. Inspired by Bush, he held listening sessions around the state and assembled the results in a briefing book. And he found jobs for Bush staffers on House committees.

But Charlie Crist, who succeeded Bush as governor, was working against him. After taking office, Crist, then still a Republican, went about reversing Bush’s nominations, cooperating far more closely with Democrats, and generally snubbing his predecessor. Florida journalist Adam C. Smith called it “the de-Jebification” of Florida politics. “As important as the relationship between Jeb and Marco was when Marco served in the legislature and Jeb was governor, it became much more important and solidified more when Jeb was out of office and Marco was the only one standing in Charlie Crist’s way,” says Planas. “Jeb also sees Marco as a protector of his legacy, and I think that’s something that’s extremely important to him.”

Before jumping into the 2010 Senate primary to replace the retiring Mel Martinez, Rubio paid a visit to his mentor to ask if he wanted the job. “Jeb was still immensely popular in the state. If he were to run, no one would challenge him in the primary—certainly not me,” Rubio wrote in his memoir. Just after New Year’s, Bush decided against it and called Rubio to let him know. Rubio remembered hanging up and immediately phoning his wife. “Jeb’s not running,” he told her. “We need to talk.”

Some Florida Republicans, including Rubio’s most vocal backers, worried that Crist had the best chance of holding onto the seat and that Rubio’s candidacy risked spoiling it. Bush initially stayed neutral in the race, telling people close to him that he wanted his protégé to be perceived as succeeding on his own. But there was little doubt about where he stood. Eventually, he would become a crucial behind-the-scenes backer, providing advice and criticizing Crist, who abandoned the GOP to seek Martinez’s seat as an independent.

On Election Day, at Coral Gables’ luxe Biltmore hotel, where Bush keeps an office and where Rubio staffers were setting up a war room, Bush chatted excitedly all through the day about the candidate’s chances. And Bush was with Rubio later that night, pumping his fist in the air, when the Associated Press called the race. According to one source who knows him well, Bush could not have been more proud if it were one of his own sons he was introducing on stage that night.

The two men are not as close today as they were in their Tallahassee days. Rubio no longer relies on former Bush staffers to fill out his team. With the exception of a few key players, there isn’t significant overlap between the two camps. And reporters have been busy looking for any sign of tension between them. In December, they seized on a comment from Bush’s youngest son, Jeb Jr., who claimed that Rubio had to “actually execute and get something done rather than just talking.” (In an e-mail, Jeb Jr., who is considering his own run for office in Florida, denied any tension with Rubio.)

The press had more meaningful friction to report in early March, as Bush hit the media circuit to promote his new book on immigration reform, co-authored with conservative legal activist Clint Bolick. The book argues against a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—a stance that angered reform advocates, who previously viewed Bush as an ally. And that complicates matters politically for Rubio, who has emerged as the public face of a bipartisan Senate gang working to enact immigration reform—an effort, Republicans will admit, undertaken in part to ensure that they remain competitive in future campaigns. Bush sought to quell the controversy, maintaining he was still open to a path under the right circumstances, and both he and Rubio downplayed any daylight between them.

The conversation will surely continue through mid-March, though, when Bush and Rubio are both slated to speak at CPAC, the annual summit in Washington that is as good an index as any of the state of Republican soul-searching. Rubio heads into the spring slightly ahead on points. Nationally, he is the favored contender for the 2016 Republican nomination; he’s also the choice of Florida Republican primary voters, even if Bush did handily beat Rubio in a poll of more than 100 Florida insiders conducted by the Tampa Bay Times in December. Rubio has a national coalition of support—activists, social conservatives, Tea Partiers, and blogger-types—that is distinct from Bush’s older, more established base.

Some also question whether Bush has the inclination to thrust himself back into public life. His recent publicity tour notwithstanding, Bush has been choosing his public appearances carefully, enjoying stretches of privacy in the interim. Bush, held up by his supporters as the man who could restore sanity to his party, could be a tougher sell to the modern GOP. His record on social issues has not stirred conservatives. His passion for education policy is not one the Tea Party shares. And he would have to overcome the hostility to the Bush name engendered by his brother’s two terms in the White House. It is not difficult to imagine that Republican primary voters would, like Democrats five years ago, prefer a newcomer with an exciting story to another dynasty hire.

Still, few people in Florida can imagine Rubio running if Bush decided to get into the race. Though he has often been written about as an overnight Tea Party sensation, that narrative belies the methodic arc of Rubio’s career, points out Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia in his book, The Rise of Marco Rubio. Duty, loyalty, and honor are considered first principles in his circles. “I have always seen him as a very respectful person,” said Rebeca Sosa, a former West Miami mayor who was tending her garden the day the young Rubio came to ask for her support in his first campaign. “I have no question in my mind that, if one day he needs to sit down with a friend and discuss issues of importance for the nation, ... he and Jeb will do it.” Steven Geller, who served as the Democratic minority leader in the state Senate, told me, “I regard Marco as a man of honor, and I don’t think he’d do that to Jeb.”

“If Marco were to run against Jeb, or to run before Jeb has taken himself out, there would be a general feeling that Marco had betrayed his mentor,” Geller continued. “And I think that would hurt Marco.”

Whether they decide to compete in a primary that would cleave Florida’s political and donor classes, or, as expected, come to some sort of pact, at some point each man is going to have to confront a decision that will pit his ambitions against his devotion to the other. Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who ran the state GOP while Bush was governor and hired a young Rubio to work in his law firm, hopes the suspense won’t last much longer. “You can project any number of challenges if they both decide to say yes,” Cardenas told me. “All of their mutual friends are hoping and praying this thing sorts itself out, including myself.” 

Marin Cogan is a contributing writer at GQ magazine.