Upstart may face mentor in race to White House

Upstart may face mentor in race to White House
Mr Marco Rubio, with his family, waving on stage at the Freedom Tower in Miami on Monday after announcing his bid for the White House. He urged voters to choose new leadership that is not mired in the policies of the past.

FLORIDA senator Marco Rubio may have been the one standing behind the podium at the iconic Freedom Tower in Miami announcing his White House run, but the presence of his one-time mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, loomed large.

By throwing his hat into the ring on Monday, the 43-year-old first-term senator is putting himself on a collision course with Mr Bush - a move that has severely split opinions in the southern US state.

If and when Mr Bush does formally declare his bid to occupy the Oval Office, it will be the first time in modern history that the primary elections will feature two candidates from the same city.

Ahead of Mr Rubio's announcement, there had been calls from some quarters for the younger man to make way for his 62-year-old mentor.

The two have a history dating back decades. Mr Bush had identified Mr Rubio as a promising politician early on. In 1998, Mr Bush reportedly called the then 26-year-old Mr Rubio to congratulate him on winning a small commission seat in the city of West Miami.

Later when Mr Rubio became the speaker of the Florida House, Mr Bush gave him a samurai sword, a gesture seen then as a passing on of the mantle of Republican leadership in the state.

But Mr Rubio made it clear in his announcement speech that he had little room for sentimentality. "I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot. Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as President," he said.

In fact, Mr Rubio is building his entire campaign on the idea that the United States needs new solutions and new ideas.

He said: "While our people and economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century. They are busy looking backwards, so they do not see how jobs and prosperity today depend on our ability to compete in a global economy."

He also launched a thinly veiled attack against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who had unveiled her own campaign just a day earlier.

"Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for President by promising to take us back to yesterday. But yesterday is over, and we are never going back," he said.

Mr Rubio, a Cuban-American, is the third Tea Party-backed candidate to enter the race after his fellow senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. The Floridian, though, is deemed more electable than either Mr Cruz or Dr Paul as he has been careful not to position himself too far right.

Moderate Republicans trust him more than they do the other two young firebrands and yet he hasn't lost his credibility with the far-right wing.

But that's where a conflict with his political godfather comes into play. If Mr Rubio wants to be the choice of moderate establishment Republicans, he needs to first usurp the current establishment favourite, Mr Jeb Bush.

In the early stages, most do not expect too much rivalry.

Said Dr Carol S. Weissert, professor of political science at Florida State University: "Florida is big enough for the campaigns to run side by side. The two will compete for Florida funders, but they will also be competing for funders outside the state. The big component pre-primary is fund-raising and that will largely be done outside Florida."

But the two will be in for a showdown once the Florida primaries roll around in March.

"It certainly makes it very, very difficult for Floridians to pick because they like both of them," said Dr Susan MacManus, distinguished professor at the Department of Government and International Affairs of the University of South Florida.

"By the time Florida has its primary, Floridian Republicans will be able to see which one of the two is doing better and that will probably help whoever it is."

Early polling places Mr Bush firmly in the driver's seat. He leads Mr Rubio by an average of 8 percentage points in polls and also has a stronger national profile.

That Mr Rubio would put himself in the way of Mr Bush does, however, say something about the ruthlessness and ambition of the freshman senator.

Said Dr MacManus: "One thing about Marco is that he has always been a risk-taker. He ran for that open senate seat when no one thought he had a chance. He ran against a sitting governor and no one thought he could win.

"He is also looking ahead and thinking about what he has to offer. Marco is looking at the fact that he brings to the table youth, ethnic diversity, good television presence, debating skills... And he knows if someone wins, he will likely be there for eight years and maybe the whole appeal he has now would have evaporated."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Apr 15, 2015.
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