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Marco Rubio vs. Jeb Bush: The inevitable GOP showdown arrives

With Marco Rubio on the rise, Jeb Bush is starting to take shots at his longtime friend.

DUBUQUE, Iowa — After a campaign dominated for months by Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s various feuds, a new rivalry is taking center stage that may ultimately have a far bigger impact on the GOP race: Jeb Bush versus Marco Rubio. 

Rubio’s message, which has always emphasized his youth and novelty in American politics, is growing more pointed as the campaigns converge. And the sharp end of the rhetorical stick is clearly aimed at a certain unnamed candidate more than the others.

“If we keep electing the same kind of people with the same ideas, the next person in line, the person all the experts tell us we have to vote for — if we keep doing that, nothing is going to change,” Rubio told a crowd of Iowans at a conference hall in Dubuque on Friday, the second of three events in the state this week.

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The senator reinforces this theme that new policies need new people — and new last names — continuously. In the same Dubuque appearance, he derided “leaders in both parties who are completely out of touch” because they haven’t lived paycheck to paycheck like he had. As he has for months, Rubio told Iowans “my parents were never rich or famous.” He praised term limits, because “our process needs to constantly be infused with new people.” Twice in two days he recounted being told he was too green to run against another former Florida governor, Charlie Crist, who was heavily favored to win their 2010 Senate primary.

Rubio, who has steadily improved in the polls since the last debate, is looking more and more like a threat to win the nomination as Bush’s campaign fails to reach escape velocity. Recognizing the danger, Bush has started to raise pointed questions about his old friend’s qualifications, portraying him as a promising protégé who needs more time in the minor leagues.

Their jostling will likely determine who carries the establishment banner against Trump and outsiders like Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Sen. Ted Cruz.

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Thursday, Bush said that Rubio “followed my lead” as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives — and it’s “not known” how he’ll do with the training wheels removed. “Barack Obama didn’t end up having [leadership skills] and he won an election on the belief that he could,” Bush said. 

On Thursday, Rubio’s campaign removed a video tracker who is affiliated with the $100 million-plus pro-Bush group Right to Rise PAC from a town hall in Cedar Falls, according to a report in POLITICO. A spokesperson for the group told the outlet that it was filming Rubio because he was “nowhere to be seen on the Senate floor,” a reference to his many missed votes while running for president.

Asked about Bush’s remarks on Friday, Rubio had only nice things to say about his former mentor. “I’m not running against Jeb Bush,” he told reporters. But he repeated, for the umpteenth time, his warning against nominating a candidate who sounded like yesterday’s news.

“I believe that the time has come to turn the page and elevate a new generation of leadership who understands the issues of our country today,” Rubio said.

Rubio’s path widens

When Rubio first begin exploring a run this year, he was considered a relative long shot compared to Bush, who had a massive fundraising machine behind him and pulled support from the same pool of Florida donors, staff, and endorsements. But even then, political observers saw Rubio as a serious contender to win the nomination if a few key things went his way: One, he was able to raise money. Two, no one stole his spot with party elites as the most credible Bush alternative. And three, Bush stumbled.

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So far, every prerequisite to a Rubio boom is falling into place. Rubio, thanks to decent fundraising and a handful of super-rich super PAC donors, survived the first stretch of the race. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the most hyped Bush alternative at the outset of the race, did not. Bush, while in better shape, is looking weak in the polls. (He hit a new low on Friday with 4% support in a Pew GOP voters survey, in which Rubio tied for third place at 8%.) In addition, Bush has worried supporters with his tendency for verbal stumbles. 

Rubio, by contrast, has proven the least gaffe-prone candidate in the race so far and impressed voters with his ease when discussing international affairs. At a forum on Friday in Cedar Rapids hosted by Congressman Mike Rogers’ Americans for Peace Prosperity and Security group, he spent more than an hour delving into his plan to “change the cost-benefit analysis for Vladimir Putin and confront Middle East threats." His campaign ran video footage before his Iowa events of Rubio discussing Russian military involvement in Syria in last month’s debate, an issue that’s moved to the forefront of the campaign now that Putin has begun bombing rebels.

With Bush’s early electability argument thrown into question, it’s become fashionable among political pundits to anoint Rubio as the replacement front-runner. '

With Bush’s early electability argument thrown into question, it’s become fashionable among political pundits to anoint Rubio as the replacement front-runner. “The entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly when Marco Rubio wins every Republican primary,” conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted last month. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias mischievously called on Bush to drop out of the race entirely to clear the path for Rubio, who he described as “Jeb Bush but good at politics."

As Yglesias alluded, the biggest reason Rubio is such a threat to Bush is the same reason he threatened to crowd the senator out of the race before it began — their campaigns have a tremendous amount of overlap. Both are running on platform of wooing big business and middle class voters with budget-busting tax cuts —their plans have each been estimated to cost $3 trillion to $4 trillion — as well as on education reform and returning the country to a hawkish foreign policy. Both are relative moderates within the party on immigration and both court Latino voters in fluent Spanish.

Bush has more experience, but his background also neutralizes a favorite GOP line of attack against Hillary Clinton — that she's a retread of an earlier era in politics. In this regard, Rubio's youth and working class background both could be strong assets against Hillary Clinton. 

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After a summer of Trump’s combat politics, a striking number of voters at Rubio’s Iowa events cited his ability to sound a more wonky tone – “reasonable” was a frequent descriptor — while still holding conservative positions. These are exactly the kind of center-right voters Bush and Rubio each need to anchor their winning coalition against the various insurgents. 

"He gets criticized by both sides, Democrats and Republicans, and that brings him credibility," Rollie Ackerman, a high school government teacher who has Rubio high on his list, told MSNBC at his Cedar Falls event. 

“He just seems to be so level-headed,” said Jerry Hammer, 73, who attended Rubio’s Cedar Falls event with his wife. 

John Woods, a retired police officer, cited Rubio’s policy acumen as well in spurring his interest, but the notion that Rubio’s Hispanic background might open up doors for the party is important to him — even if he’d prefer voters didn’t care about such things.

“If we’re in a politically correct society that says you have to elect Hispanics, or women, or blacks, and let’s go get the white guy, he plays right into that,”  Woods told MSNBC as he made his way out of Rubio’s event in Cedar Falls. “I’m all for it.” 

The test ahead 

That’s the good news for Rubio. The downside is that the Rubio boomlet is still less about any spectacular surge on his end and much more about other candidate’s failures. He’s the most consistent campaigner in the race, but he isn’t someone like Barack Obama in 2008, who inspired a rabidly devoted core following and drew large crowds long before he overtook Hillary Clinton in the polls. Rubio’s reception in Iowa was warm enough, but voters rarely seemed fired up.  

Rubio also still lags behind outsiders Trump, Carson, and Fiorina in most polls, averaging around 9.5% support. If history serves as a guide, it’s unlikely any of those three rivals will end up as the nominee given their political inexperience and lack of elite party support — but a lot of predictions have already gone awry this year and Rubio will have to make his move at some point.

The downside is that the Rubio boomlet is still less about any spectacular surge on his end and much more about other candidate’s failures. '

A major reason untested newcomers like Fiorina or Carson tend to lose is that they’re unable to withstand the scrutiny that comes with moving into front-runner status. Already, each are struggling with new issues on the big stage, like Carson’s ties to the party’s fringe and Fiorina’s relationship to the truth and her business record.

Rubio, by contrast, is more of a known quantity who has already weathered some storms in the Senate, namely immigration, where he backed off his bipartisan effort to enact a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in favor of an enforcement-first approach. Since then, the party has been overrun by populists like Trump who advocate deportation and polls show voters tacking towards a hardline stance. Rubio is only just starting to face the inevitable attacks on his position from Trump and others will likely follow suit as the primaries near. Adding to his difficulty, Iowa Republicans are considered especially conservative on immigration, which could make it hard for Rubio to gather momentum with a strong performance in the caucuses.

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Rubio gets immigration questions constantly at events. At Cedar Falls, a voter asked him: “”Do you agree with the pope or Trump?” on the issue. Rubio responded that Trump’s plan was “not realistic,” but that he would pass legislation cracking down on border security and illegal hiring and “prove it to people” before looking at legal status for undocumented immigrants.

Then there are other issues waiting in the wings. As Trump has brought up, Rubio’s last brief polling bump prompted The New York Times to dig into his unusual relationship with Florida billionaire Norman Braman, who has not only subsidized his political career with millions in donations but employed Rubio and his wife privately as well. The story faded quickly as Rubio shrank in the race and the Times fended off a backlash over its coverage of Rubio’s traffic tickets, but Republican strategists skeptical of Rubio whisper that it will return in a major way should he get close to the nomination.

These were always going to be obstacles for Rubio. But four months from the Iowa caucuses, he’s put himself in position to debate them on the main stage from a position of strength. As Bush has learned the hard way, that’s no small achievement.