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Florida Primary Shows Rubio's Influence

Alan Diaz/Associated Press
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has not endorsed anyone in the GOP presidential primary, but candidates are looking to use his popularity with the GOP and Hispanics to win votes.

During a brief interview Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Rubio downplayed his role in the Florida primary, saying: "I didn't have a role. I was a voter in Florida. I voted, but other than that I largely left it up to the people of Florida particularly Republican voters who I think are going to make a wise choice one way or the other."

But when asked about his criticism of Gingrich's radio ad, the Senator indicated that it was more than flippant and directly related to the expectation that he will be stumping for the eventual GOP nominee. Rubio appeared to be concerned that wooing Hispanics a key, growing voting bloc could be more difficult if he and others find themselves having to rebut unhelpful charges that his party is unfriendly toward Hispanics.

"Heated rhetoric always has that potential," said Rubio, who has otherwise been complimentary of Gingrich. "You worry about lasting damage done to the persona and the view the voters may have about any individual."

With low job-approval ratings and a relatively thin relationship with Florida's Republican grass roots, Gov. Rick Scott is not the political heavyweight that most chief executives are in their respective parties. Elected in 2010, he was almost an afterthought in the presidential primary campaign. He did not endorse a candidate, but his backing was not coveted. To some degree, Scott's diminutive stature explains Bush's continued influence and Rubio's fast rise within the Republican ranks.

Rubio, the former state Speaker, was elected to the Senate in 2010 on the strength of substantial tea party support. The then-39-year-old ethnic Cuban toppled sitting Gov. Charlie Crist (I), who left the Republican Party after it became clear he could not beat Rubio in the GOP primary.

Hispanics represent 11 percent of the GOP primary vote in Florida, which has added value to Rubio's political cache. But nationally, and from the standpoint of influencing voters in general elections, Bush carries at least as much weight in Florida, a swing state that will be hotly contested in the general election. And though he's a bit removed from day-to-day politics, Bush remains influential at home and nationally.

Bush's conservative credentials are rarely questioned. And his endorsement could be the seal of approval it would take to get big Republican donors who have sat on the sidelines to back a candidate and contribute. For a candidate like Romney, whose conservative credentials and ability to close the deal are still questioned in some quarters, an endorsement from Bush is viewed by Florida Republicans as one that could be particularly helpful.

"Jeb has the Bush Rolodex. But Marco has the notoriety from his recent run," a Republican strategist based in Florida said. "Their endorsements are equally coveted."

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