ST. PETERSBURG, FL. In recent presidential election cycles, Florida's primary has basically decided the Republican nomination. In 2008 John McCain received the endorsement of then-Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, and after winning the sunshine state's primary, never looked back. Even more dramatically, Mitt Romney reversed what seemed to be a potentially fatal loss to Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary by besting the former speaker just days later in the Florida contest.
The fight in 2016 for Florida's rich number of delegates could once again bring an early and final decision in the race for the GOP nomination, especially if either former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio emerges as a frontrunner prior to the Florida vote. Should either of the two potential Floridian candidates choose not to run, the state would likely support the other as its favorite son.
But what if Bush and Rubio both decide to compete for the nomination? That could make Florida a big problem for both men.
At first blush and certainly in the eyes of most of the national media, Bush would be presumed a clear frontrunner in the state he once governed. But to underestimate Rubio could be a big mistake, given his defeat of a heavily favored Charlie Crist in Rubio's first and winning bid for the U.S. Senate.
For Bush there would be huge advantages to being dubbed the "Republican Establishment" candidate. For one thing, he could sap big money away from the likes of Mitt Romney. There is usually only enough cash available for one mainstream candidate by the time the primary season gets to the big, delegate-rich states. And with outside Super Pacs now playing an increasingly powerful role, the big-name candidates fade quickly if they are out bankrolled.
But Rubio is not to be discounted. Other than his brief dance with "immigration reform," which nearly destroyed his relationship with the more conservative wing of the GOP, he has managed to maintain the sort of profile and record that could make him the darling of conservatives. That's especially true if potential candidates such as Sen. Rand Paul or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decide not to run in '16, or if they fall by the wayside in the early primaries.
Rubio is still counting his team as ready should he decide to jump into the race. And his virulent attacks on the Obama administration's move to normalize relations with Cuba have fired up a portion of Rubio's Cuban-American base in Florida.
The most interesting part of a potential Bush-Rubio showdown in Florida's 2016 primary would be the fact that in most ways, both men are staunch conservatives. Bush is unquestionably the most conservative member of his family of famed leaders. And he was an ardent conservative long before it was cool within his party.
Perhaps the best news for a Rand Paul effort is that while Paul's candidacy would have a conservative/libertarian flavor to it, should he survive into the big-boy round of primaries, Florida could be split between Bush and Rubio. That could give Paul's new brand of politics a chance to emerge successfully from what has been in recent years the "Florida Mandate" -- the reality that one must win the state's presidential primary winner to become the eventual GOP nominee.
Of course, the big remaining issue is the date of the Florida primary. In recent presidential years, Florida has violated silly Republican Party rules and held its contest ahead of some of the "sacred-cow" states that have traditionally gone first. But with either Bush or Rubio running, it seems very unlikely that the state legislature, controlled by the GOP, would attempt to violate national party rules and risk being penalized by the national party by losing its delegates at the national convention.
As we have all learned, Florida is the new microcosm of America. However it votes in primaries or in the November showdown, so too votes the nation. It is likely the state will hold onto that power once again, with a new twist of having at least one hometown hero in the contest.