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Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio gear up for war

An explosive report that a pro-Bush group is preparing negative ads against Marco Rubio is shaking up the race.

The long simmering rivalry between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio is at a crossroads.

After The New York Times reported that a pro-Bush super PAC, Right to Rise, was weighing a $20 million all-out advertising assault on Rubio, the senator's campaign responded with a web ad highlighting praise from Bush in friendlier times. The two had closely intertwined careers in Florida, and Bush endorsed Rubio in his 2010 Senate primary. 

The video, entitled “Before The Phony Attacks,” includes a 2012 clip of Bush saying Rubio has “the fortitude to be a good president” in an interview with television host Charlie Rose. Rubio was under consideration as Mitt Romney’s running mate at the time. The campaign also sent out a fundraising email to supporters highlighting the Times report, which came on the eve of Tuesday’s Republican debate. 

RELATED: Jeb Bush won’t go down without a fight

The response was in line with Rubio’s broad approach to Bush’s attacks so far, which has been to portray them as desperate moves driven by politics rather than genuinely felt sentiments. In last month’s debate, Rubio effectively parried criticism from Bush over his missed votes by responding, “someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” 

Bush, along with his allies, now face a tough decision. He could signal a more aggressive tack against Rubio in order to hobble his former protégé before he gains too much momentum. Or he could focus on rebuilding his campaign while hoping Rubio fades on his own. The first option risks undermining his upbeat image and provoking a backlash from establishment Republicans who are afraid of tarnishing Rubio in a general election. The second option could allow Rubio to gather strength.

Bush has so far failed to damage Rubio with attacks on his missed votes, but the report indicated that one angle under consideration is the launch of more aggressive ads highlighting missed votes on defunding Planned Parenthood and blocking President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Somewhat counterintuitively, the report also indicated Right to Rise strategist Mike Murphy sees potential in portraying Rubio’s stance on banning abortion — he’s against exceptions for rape and incest — as too far right to win a general election. According to the Times, the group screened a video highlighting Rubio's position for donors.

“[Marco Rubio] is proudly pro-life,” Rubio’s policy director Jonathan Slemrod tweeted Monday night in response to the news.

RELATED: Bush fundraiser defects over Rubio attacks

The Times report was greeted with surprise by some political observers on social media, who questioned why Bush’s allies would telegraph their potential lines of attack rather than catch Rubio off guard. Rubio successfully rebutted Bush’s missed votes attack in the last debate, but he had an advantage then, as well: Bush and his campaign made their intentions clear in public comments beforehand.

“These leaks from Bush world are a master class in political malpractice,” former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted. “Do it don't talk [about] it.”

In fact, it was not clear where the leaks came from — raising speculation about their source's intentions. Were they from a dissenting Bush supporter out to sabotage Right to Rise's plans? Or a Bush ally demanding a harsher tack? Was it a trial balloon to see if their anti-Rubio angles had potential — or if Bush was comfortable if they went more harshly negative?

Others highlighted the difficulty in attacking Rubio from the right on abortion without making Bush, who is pro-life, look weak on the issue to social conservatives. Republican consultant Liz Mair speculated how such an exchange over abortion might play out in Tuesday’s debate were Bush to get a question about the report.

“Bash him, make him look right in line [with the] base,” Mair said. “Praise him, commit suicide live on TV.”

The candidates will meet at 9 p.m. ET tonight in Milwaukee for the Fox Business/Wall Street Journal debate.