For my weekly TPMCafe column, I figured I ought to do something about Jeb Bush’s official announcement of candidacy, and decided it would be interesting to look at the 2016 Invisible Primary from the perspective of Jeb and his team now as opposed to just a few months ago. And of all the factors that have made Bush ’16 a suddenly perilous endeavor, there was none more striking than the rise of Marco Rubio as a serious rival, not too long after he was largely dismissed as a parvenu who had grievously miscalculated the immigration issue and needed to spend a few years crawling around the precincts of Conservative America in sackcloth and ashes–or alternatively, waiting for his party to evolve–before perhaps running for president in the future.
Rubio’s remarkably quick self-rehabilitation left him initially as a second-tier candidate with impressively positive approval ratios ready to move up if Bush stumbled. But now he’s emerging as a first-tier candidate and a deadly threat to Jeb. Of all the numbers I looked at in writing this piece, the most surprising (and least discussed nationally) was that the very latest GOP primary poll in Florida, from Mason-Dixon in April, actually showed Rubio leading Bush after being far behind in earlier surveys.
And so it wasn’t terribly surprising (though again, it’s been under-discussed) that Team Jeb has ended the happy talk about a “positive campaign” and is instead more or less openly planning to emulate Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign by using its big stacks of money to get medieval on his rivals. According to at least one credible account, that will include going after Marco Rubio for his not terribly tidy personal finances, which presumably will remind the more tightly wrapped self-righteous GOP primary voters of those people and their inexcusable refusal to manage their money and credit prudently.
The $64,000 question is whether this shift in tactics is too late or just in time for Jeb. Perhaps publicity over his launch and a rehearsal of his resume will give him a heaven-sent polling bump. It’s not that important that he looks like a front-runner in primary horse-race polls, but he sure does need some evidence that the faith his donors have in his electability is well-placed. It’s not a big stretch: a new set of “battleground state” polls of FL, OH and PA by Quinnipiac shows Jeb running about as well as Marco Rubio (though not as well as Rand Paul) against Hillary Clinton, and significantly better than Scott Walker (a guy with his own electability problems as resentment against him grows back home in WI for leaving a fiscal mess while he’s out campaigning). Sure, it helps that Florida is in this particular three-state mix. But every little bit helps for a candidate who hasn”t had any positive momentum for months.
As we wait for the first blow against Rubio to emerge from Bush’s campaign or Super-PAC, we can wonder whether it will land or miss, and particularly whether it’s real smart for the scion of one of America’s most privileged families to criticize someone who’s supposed to be a close friend for struggling to pay the bills–a common enough experience for Americans during both Bush administrations. But you can appreciate Jeb has to do something soon. To quote the line John Edwards used (crafted, I’m reasonably sure, by my old colleague Bruce Reed) in 2004 while seeking a late upset of John Kerry’s front-running presidential campaign: “Objects in your rearview mirror may be closer than they appear.”