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GOP Debate Spotlights Marco Rubio-Jeb Bush Rivalry


Two politicians, both Republicans, both Floridians, one considered a mentor, the other his protege. Now they are campaigning for the same job. The relationship between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio is now in sharp focus after the two GOP presidential candidates went head to head in a third primary debate last week. It was not so friendly. Adam Smith is the political editor of the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. He's been tracking the Bush-Rubio relationship, and he joins us now. Thanks for being with us, Adam.

ADAM SMITH: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: How did these two men come to know each other years ago?

SMITH: You know, I think it - back in the '90s, especially in the early '90s, Jeb Bush was pretty much a giant figure in Florida politics. And somebody in his circle down in Miami-Dade pointed him to this young kid that seemed to have great energy and great political skill. And they saw him as just the kind of exciting, young, Hispanic Republican that Florida's Republican Party needed.

MARTIN: How did their relationship evolve?

SMITH: I think early on, Marco Rubio was just a kid running for the city commission in a little town in Miami-Dade. Jeb Bush gave him money. That was seen as a big deal; wow, I've been anointed by Jeb Bush. And then Marco Rubio grows very fast. He's obviously very talented. He became a very young speaker of the Florida House. And Jeb Bush at that time was something of his mentor. You know, they weren't close friends. I'm pretty sure they're a lot less close friends today than they were a year ago. But, you know, they were ideological soul mates.

MARTIN: Did I read they live within miles of each other?

SMITH: They do. West Miami and Coral Gables, it's just a few minute drive depending on traffic.

MARTIN: How is their rivalry playing in Florida, especially in Miami-Dade?

SMITH: You know, I think there's a view that people in Jeb world, which really means the establishment and much of the political elites in Florida in the Republican Party, just can't fathom that little Marco Rubio, who really was seen as a kid for so long, could really be getting the better of Jeb Bush, who really was a giant and, it's worth noting, a real conservative in many people's minds in Florida. So it's stunning, in a lot of ways, for people that have watched them both closely in Florida.

MARTIN: What did Floridians take away from this debate? Did it give Marco Rubio a new kind of momentum?

SMITH: Yeah. I think you can see in that Jeb Bush really was known as a conservative activist, bold, reform-minded governor. But he never really has had a lot of tough elections. He had one tough election the first time he ran in 1994, and he lost. So clearly Marco Rubio is better at the strict politicking than Jeb Bush was. And that's probably always been the case.

MARTIN: But the bottom line is Florida's got two contenders here. It must be - I mean, that's kind of a coup. I mean, Florida's used to being the center of attention. But are voters enjoying the rivalry? Or is it slightly uncomfortable?

SMITH: I think we love the rivalry, speaking for myself.

MARTIN: Well, you do. You're the political editor.

SMITH: Of course, of course. But there's an irony here that when Jeb Bush started to make noises like he might run, and a lot of us didn't think he would, that he would be miserable - turns out we might have been right - the Republicans of the legislature decided they wanted to do him a favor. They set the Florida primary for March 15 and decided it would be a winner-take-all for the delegates, thinking that would be a big boost for Jeb Bush. Now that looks like that could be a real problem for Jeb Bush because if he doesn't win Florida, it's clearly all over. And, you know, it looks like he's going to have a tough time in Florida.

MARTIN: Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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