With Jeb stalling, Rubio is on the rise

The 2016 race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is already a fascinating one. The ever-expanding field of candidates already includes no fewer than 14 reputable figures with a variety of ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic, and religious backgrounds. The primary race has not yet even formally begun, but there are already intramural contests developing that could winnow the field even before the first debate. The most fascinating of these is the battle between Florida’s powerhouse politicians Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

For Democrats, Florida’s 29 electoral votes are icing on what is probably already a pretty decadent cake. If Florida falls into the blue column, it has already likely taken key states like Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, and Nevada with it. For Republicans, however, Florida is a must-win, and the candidate vying for the party’s nomination will bring a powerful general election advantage to the table if he hails from the Sunshine State.

Bush’s unexpectedly early foray into the 2016 race initially prompted some pundits to speculate that he might squeeze Rubio out of the field. Like Highlander, presumably, there can be only one. Furthermore, Bush’s ability to tap into a well-heeled base of GOP donors suggested that he might emerge as the prohibitive frontrunner in short order.

But Bush’s candidacy had as many built-in advantages as disadvantages. Like Mitt Romney, Bush’s name recognition among Republican primary voters initially propelled him to the top of the pack, but he also suffers from a low ceiling of support. According to the results of a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a significant number of prospective GOP primary voters could not see themselves backing Bush under any circumstances. He joins Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and Chris Christie on a dubious list of 2016 candidates that 40 percent or more of the party’s base cannot support.

What’s more, Bush’s prominence has led the commentary class to anticipate that his first financial disclosure will reveal a huge haul. According to Politico’s Ben White, Bush’s advisors are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the expectations placed on the former Florida governor, and they are eagerly deflating the expectancies of those who anticipate a significant early lead on the fundraising front.

“The whispers in the air are not at all accurate,” Bush spokesman Tim Miller said. “The PAC’s goals are far more modest.”

Other people close to Bush privately use more colorful language to talk down the fundraising figures, noting that Mitt Romney’s Restore Our Future PAC spent just $43 million for the entire 2012 primary season. One adviser called the $100 million by March 31 figure a “total fantasy.”

But so far, efforts by the Bush team to reduce expectations for their money haul are not working.

By contrast, Rubio is enjoying his week in the sun. That same WSJ/NBC survey discovered that Rubio has a relatively high ceiling of support among GOP voters. Only 26 percent of surveyed Republican primary voters can’t see supporting the Florida senator under any circumstances while 56 percent said they could see themselves casting a ballot for Rubio. That’s the highest level of potential support any of the 14 prospective candidates received.

Rubio’s popularity among Republican voters is matched only by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake speculated on Monday that Rubio might just have a leg up on Walker due, in part, to his abilities as an orator, his Hispanic background, and his Floridian origins. But Blake also indicated that another element of Rubio’s appeal is his ability to avoid getting into food fights with his GOP competition. This is a trait Blake suspects could lead Rubio to unite a fractious GOP.

Once Rubio got into the 2016 campaign, his actions on immigration would quickly be at issue with conservatives. And there’s always the matter of, you know, building a campaign that is capable of actually winning the nomination. Rubio has lots of work to do re-asserting himself as a frontrunner.

But in a party that is defined by infighting, Rubio is somewhat above the fray. Or, at the least, he’s got fewer built-in enemies and a higher ceiling at the outset.

If Blake is right, the conventional wisdom at the outset of 2015 was very wrong. The stratospheric expectations placed on Bush early on have apparently led his campaign vehicle to stall out while Rubio’s star continues to rise.