NASHUA, N.H. (AP) — Ties between Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, political allies for more than a decade, are fraying as the Republican presidential campaign picks up.
In public, mentor Bush and protege Rubio have avoided criticizing each other since Rubio announced his candidacy.
But Bush allies have started quietly spreading negative information about Rubio’s record. Also, supporters of the two Miami politicians are drawing contrasts between Rubio, a 43-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, and 62-year-old Bush, a member of one of the nation’s most powerful political dynasties.
“Sparks are going to fly,” said Al Cardenas, a Bush adviser who is also close to Rubio. “For the first time in our country’s history you’ve got two guys from the same town in the same state from same party running in the same primary.”
He added: “You can bet that regardless of how nice Jeb or Marco wants to be, their staffs are going to do anything they can to win.”
As Bush tries to convince Republicans of his conservative credentials, supporters are asserting that as governor, he was far more conservative than Rubio when both held prominent state posts. Rubio served as Florida House speaker in the two years immediately after Bush left the governor’s mansion.
Their relationship was close then.
Bush viewed Rubio as a protector of his political legacy. The governor presented Rubio with a golden sword in a ceremony symbolizing a political handoff nearly a decade ago, an endorsement that Rubio’s advisers point to when asked about the Bush camp’s early aggression now.
“I have it somewhere at home,” Rubio said of the sword. Asked about it while campaigning in New Hampshire on the weekend, he suggested the keepsake is not prominently displayed in his house. “I have young kids. I don’t want them running around with a sword,” he said.
They still call each other friends. But subtle criticism has emerged as Rubio speaks of the need to break with ideas from the last century and Bush questions whether one term in the Senate can prepare anyone for the White House.
Rubio’s respect for Bush is well-documented in his writings and years of political activity when he relied on Bush’s support, donor network and even former staff to help his own rise.
Rubio said he would not enter Florida’s 2010 Senate contest were Bush to run, and Bush didn’t.
Rubio was expected to defer to Bush again in the 2016 presidential contest once Bush began preparing for the race. Instead, Rubio this past week announced his own presidential campaign in their hometown, insisting the stakes were too high for him to “wait his turn.” Bush has not declared his candidacy but is expected to.
Rubio’s move forced prominent Florida Republicans such as Cardenas to pick sides.
Bush “feels disappointed because he’s cared for him for so long,” said Cardenas, who attended Rubio’s wedding. “You just don’t want to go to battle against someone you care for.”
Just below the surface, the battles have begun.
Several former Florida legislators now aligned with Bush challenged Rubio’s conservative credentials during his time as speaker. In the Senate, Rubio has opposed taxpayer-financed special projects known as earmarks. But he supported them as a state legislator, these critics point out, in one year alone requesting $43 million in such spending for public works, autism and substance abuse programs.
“Bush was more conservative,” said U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who served in the Legislature with Rubio and while Bush was governor, and now supports Bush.
Ross highlighted Bush’s aggressive use of the line-item veto to cut government spending, regardless of whether such spending benefited members of his own party.
Former state Rep. Juan-Carlos Planas, who also worked with both men and now backs Bush, made a similar point. “There were always projects that were important to Marco’s constituents,” he said. “And they always ended up in the budget.”
Rubio’s team declined to respond to those statements and hasn’t cast Bush or other rivals in a negative light.
Yet a prominent Rubio supporter, billionaire businessman Norman Braman, has been less diplomatic.
“We have to look for the future,” Braman told CNN this past week in a round of interviews. “We have to go beyond the Bushes. We have to go beyond the Clintons.” He added: “We’re not a country that believes in dynasties.”
Bush and Rubio courted New Hampshire primary voters on the same stage, hours apart Friday, but did not cross paths.
“He is a good, close friend,” Bush said. “It is what it is.”
“Jeb Bush is my friend,” Rubio said. “This is a race. It’ll be a competitive environment.”
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Kathleen Ronayne in New Hampshire and Philip Elliot in Washington contributed to this report.