Sen. Marco Rubio's star was already on the rise, but the brawl for Florida between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney solidified Rubio's status as a national figure in the 2012 presidential contest and as heir to the Republican crown in the Sunshine State.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush retains near-iconic status among Florida Republicans, and his endorsement in the presidential contest — should he grant one — could offer a candidate the kind of national credibility and fundraising assistance that is so far beyond Rubio's capability.
But it was the unaligned Rubio who occupied more political space in the final, tumultuous days of the state's presidential primary campaign, as candidates fought over who was more closely — and positively — associated with him.
One Republican insider with Florida ties referred to Bush as the state GOP's "chairman of the board" and Rubio as "president and CEO" — a description echoed by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who won the 2008 Florida GOP presidential primary and spent the weekend campaigning for Romney.
Rubio is expected to play a major role in the fall campaign — in Florida and nationally — whether as a running mate or as a key surrogate that helps the GOP broaden its base with Hispanics.
"He's a superstar," said McCain, who was his party's nominee in 2008. "Not in just Florida but in national politics. Everybody expects him to be one of the prime candidates for vice president of the United States. That's pretty good for a guy in his first term."
Rubio declined to endorse in the just-concluded presidential primary. But his presence in the race was ubiquitous. Gingrich and Romney competed over rolling out the welcome mat for Rubio in any White House administration they might assemble. They argued over who was quicker to endorse him in his 2010 Senate bid, and even over whose staff and supporters were more closely aligned to Rubio.
The Romney campaign suggested Rubio's influence could not be overstated. The former Massachusetts governor's campaign considers one of its best days of the Florida campaign to be last Wednesday, when Rubio urged the Gingrich campaign to take down a Spanish-language radio ad that described Romney as "anti-immigrant."
The former Speaker's campaign complied, saying it pulled the spot "out of respect" for Rubio. Meanwhile, Romney said during Thursday's CNN debate that he was "glad Marco Rubio called you out" on the ad.
"What he said on the Gingrich ad was a big moment in the final week," a Romney campaign aide said. "The governor's performance at the two debates and that moment were the biggest moments in the race. It had a big impact."