GREENVILLE, South Carolina — Presidential candidate Marco Rubio on Saturday defended his ties to a major donor who’s bankrolled his political career and personally employed both Rubio and his wife.
Rubio’s relationship with Norman Braman, a billionaire South Florida auto dealer and former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, has come under scrutiny — notably in the pages of The New York Times this weekend — as the freshman Florida senator has mounted a presidential bid.
RELATED: 2016 GOPers woo conservatives ahead of South Carolina primary
"Norm Braman is a great man, a pillar of the South Florida community and someone who I’m personally close to. I’m very proud to be associated with him,” Rubio said in an interview early Saturday evening, after he walked up and down Greenville’s Main Street shaking hands with voters. He repeated past assertions that there’s no ethical conflicts in the relationship because Braman has never asked him for political favors.
"I’m proud that he’s a donor, I’m proud that he’s a friend. And I’m proud that he was a client,” Rubio said. “The only thing Norman Braman’s ever asked my help on is charities, whether it’s a cancer center, or a genomics center at the University of Miami.”
Rubio and his family have benefited both personally and politically from Braman since the start of the senator’s political career. Braman donated money to Rubio’s campaigns and would likely be a major backer for the super PAC that’s been formed to help support Rubio’s presidential run.
Braman also employed Rubio as a lawyer during the latter's 2010 campaign for the Senate — and now employs his wife, Jeannette Rubio, an arrangement that began shortly after her husband was elected.
Asked if her employment by Braman represented a conflict, Rubio said: "Norman Braman doesn’t have any federal issues before the federal government.”
The focus on the relationship is representative of the kind of scrutiny Rubio — and his fellow GOP rivals — will contend with as the campaign goes on and rival camps start pushing negative stories about each other. Rubio has a newfound rivalry in particular with Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who’s served as a political mentor to Rubio.
RELATED: Steve King: President Obama bears blame for Baltimore riots
Asked if he was ready for that friendship to be turned on its head — and to face attacks that could come from Bush’s not-yet-launched campaign apparatus — Rubio shrugged.
"I don’t know if anyone’s ready for that, but we’re in competitive environment and people are going to say thing about people, and it just happens,” Rubio said. But at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s what’s going to decide this election. If we can’t convince people that the Republican Party is the party of the future, we’re not going to win this election. And our country will be worse off for that."