Floridians know two of the Republicans presidential candidates very well: Jeb Bush led the state as a two-term governor and Marco Rubio has been a senator since 2011.
Nonetheless, Donald Trump is outpacing both of the state’s resident sons as he continues to dominate early opinion polls. And he is hoping to maintain that advantage with a heavy investment in the state beginning Friday, when he arrives for a two-day swing — his first as a presidential candidate — with rallies planned in Miami on Friday evening and in Jacksonville on Saturday.
While Florida doesn’t hold its winner-take-all primary until March 15, Trump recently brought on a Florida state campaign director and plans to open a Sarasota office in early November, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said. The campaign is also expected to announce the hiring of multiple state co-chairs shortly and expects to bring in additional staffers.
Bush’s campaign headquarters are in Miami and he’s opened field offices in Miami and Tampa. Rubio’s campaign headquarters are in Washington; he has field offices in early primary states but none so far in Florida.
For Trump, the prize could be a chance to knock out two major rivals on their home turf. A University of North Florida poll of likely Republican primary voters out this week found Trump with the support of 22 percent. Ben Carson, who also lives in the state, had 19 percent. Marco Rubio was third with 15 percent and Jeb Bush fourth with 9 percent.
Michael Binder, a University of North Florida pollster and political science professor, said Trump’s “shine is starting to wear off,” noting his approval percentage was the lowest in recent statewide polls.
Trump, appearing on Miami radio’s “Paul & Young Ron Show,” said it was “amazing” that he’s leading “your two folks that are running.”
Longtime operatives and pollsters in the state say that like many potential voters nationwide, many Republicans in Florida are looking for a change. While Trump has never taken up residence in the state, he has a home in Palm Beach as well as several business ventures, and is well known in philanthropic circles.
Jamie Miller, former executive director of the state Republican party, said Florida has been receptive to outsider candidates. In 1992, he noted, Ross Perot won nearly 20 percent of the state’s vote. Gov. Rick Scott is another former businessman who won as a rookie politician in 2010 after spending $70 million of his own cash.
State Rep. Neil Combee, who represents a stretch of central Florida, said the buzz for Trump is unmistakable.
“People are dissatisfied with the direction the country’s going in,” said Combee, who is supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “It’s a phenomenon for sure. And it’s one that I don’t think is going away.”
Kinsey Craichy, an Orlando business owner, donated $250 to Trump’s campaign even though he knows the GOP front-runner doesn’t need the money.
“When you put the same politicians into the same broken system, you get the same result,” said Craichy, a Republican.
Craichy said he likes Bush but it’s not time for “business-as-usual” politicians. Rubio is a future star but “right now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Craichy said.
Emilio Garcia, 73, and Manuel Alvarez, 76, both Cuban exiles and longtime Republican voters, also dismissed Bush and Rubio because they represent the “old Republican guard.” They prefer a non-politician and especially like Trump.
“Trump needs to refine what he says, but he speaks the truth,” said Garcia as he chomped on a cigar outside La Carreta, a popular Cuban restaurant chain in Miami not far from Bush’s campaign headquarters.
Alex Conant, Rubio’s campaign spokesman, played down the Florida numbers, saying “polls don’t matter at this stage.”
Rubio has been “up and down in the polls, and he’s currently rising,” said Conant.
He said the campaign will soon come out with leadership teams in each of the state’s 67 counties and Rubio has made recent campaign stops in the state.
For his part, Bush said this week on CNN that Trump is “capturing people’s deep anger and angst about Washington, D.C.” He predicted Trump’s support will wane after voters consider “who has the judgment and the seriousness and the ideas to be president.”
Veteran political strategist Roger Stone, a close Trump friend who previously worked for his campaign and remains a supporter, said Floridians “want something entirely new. He’s a breath of fresh air.”
Not everyone is impressed. Sipping Cuban coffee on a recent afternoon, Enrique Pineiro, 50, said Trump is “un payaso,” or a clown.
“The sum of everything he says is ridiculous,” said Pineiro, who was born and raised in Miami, the son of Cuban immigrants.
He prefers Bush because he liked him when he was the state’s governor for eight years. “I know his story,” Pineiro said.