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Could Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush become strongest Florida candidates in history?

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In nearly two centuries, Florida went without creating so much as a ripple with White House contenders.

For the 2016 presidential race, that could change dramatically, as the Sunshine State faces the unique status of fielding not one, but two bona fide candidates – Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

As Rubio launched his presidential campaign Monday, and as Bush inches closer to a run with his fundraising/exploratory phase, Florida is primed to cast the biggest shadow ever with its homegrown presidential hopefuls.

The folks at Smart Politics once again crunched historical numbers to put Florida’s presidential aspirations into context.

If either Rubio or Bush have any amount of success in 2016, they say, either Floridian would easily become the strongest presidential candidate in the state’s history.

Admittedly, the bar is low — very low.

Smart Politics found that for the 170 years prior to 2016, only four Florida politicians campaigned for the presidency in the 42 election cycles from statehood in 1845. In the first century, no Floridian was named at a major party convention.

After 1944, Florida-based presidential candidates include a failed, three-day bid by U.S. Sen. Claude Pepper in 1948 against Harry Truman; Florida gave a key primary victory to U.S. Sen. George Smathers in 1960 (with 30 convention votes) and in 1968 (as a Hubert Humphrey surrogate).

Former Gov. Reuben Askew also mounted a yearlong campaign in 1983-84, abandoned after his last-place finish in New Hampshire. U.S. Sen. Bob Graham campaigned for five months in 2003, ending two months before the Iowa caucuses.

In the 1948 cycle, Pepper was part of an unsuccessful effort to recruit General Dwight Eisenhower (considered much stronger than Truman) for the Democratic nomination.

When the war hero refused just days before the national convention, set for mid-July in Philadelphia, Pepper announced he would take on the incumbent Truman. The political move failed to inspire any support.

On July 13, the day before the presidential ballot, Pepper dropped out of the race.

Pepper, a liberal, later backed Truman on civil rights, and supported the president’s nomination to avoid being associated with a Southern revolt.

Pepper’s power play was a key factor two years later, in his nine-point loss to two-term U.S. Rep. Smathers, who went on to win the Florida primary in May. He received 30 votes on the first ballot – placing seventh – in the Los Angeles convention John Kennedy won. Smathers took all 29 Florida delegates and one-half delegate each from Alabama and North Carolina.

In 1968, Smathers was again a Florida primary favorite-son candidate, as a surrogate for fellow Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Smathers took 46.1 percent of the vote, defeating Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, later netting over 90 percent of Humphrey’s delegates. That fall, Smathers did not seek re-election to the Senate.

Fifteen years later, two-term Florida Gov. Reubin Askew would enter the Democratic race in 1983 to challenge Ronald Reagan.

A conservative Democrat, Askew entered the race on February 23, days before Colorado’s Gary Hart and Minnesota’s Walter Mondale, and three weeks after Alan Cranston of California (February 2) became the first Democrat to campaign.

Askew failed to gain traction with Iowa voters (2.5 percent), placing sixth in the January caucuses. In New Hampshire, he came in last among eight Democratic candidates, reaching only a single point.

Askew withdrew two days later, as one of the three candidates (Cranston and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina the other two) with poor showings in the Granite State.

The next Floridian to launch a presidential campaign wasn’t until 20 years later.

In 2004, three-term U.S. Sen. Graham, a former two-term governor, took on incumbent President George W. Bush. Graham filed in early March 2003, formally launching a campaign on May 6 as the fourth major Democrat — Al Sharpton, Joe Lieberman, and Dick Gephardt were the others.

However, Graham lasted only five months before exiting the race on October 6, 2003 – over two months before the Iowa caucuses.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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