It’s no longer a safe assumption that one of Florida’s two most popular Republicans will carry the presidential primary in their home state, as most of the GOP candidates turned their attention Friday to the state’s winner-take-all primary.
Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush no longer lead the polls in Florida, where Republicans are gravitating toward outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson. And party activists showed as much, if not more, enthusiasm for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz than they did for Rubio and Bush during the first day of a two-day presidential summit organized by the state GOP.
“I think most everybody, even the candidates, thought that this was going to be a contest between Rubio and Bush,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said after addressing the crowd. “I don’t know that’s the case anymore.”
Fourteen candidates were scheduled to speak over the two days, a sign that they still consider Florida to be important even though it moved its primary back from January to March 15 to avoid breaking national party rules.
Donald Trump was quick to point out he’s ahead in Florida polls, claiming a new poll shows he has more than twice the support Rubio has here.
As for Bush, Trump said, “I won’t tell you what Bush is, but it’s not too good.”
Trump also highlighted his Florida ties with his part-time home in Palm Beach and hotels and resorts he owns here.
“I have an advantage because I have thousands of jobs in Florida,” Trump said.
Cruz noted the similarities between Texas and Florida, noting they’re Southern states where many immigrants live and they’re low-tax states where the economy is growing.
“We also share a similar dislike for snow. I like to tell people you can’t shovel sunshine,” Cruz said to laughs.
More seriously, he said Florida’s primary will come at a critical time and will help decide if a true conservative is the party’s nominee.
“We’re building a grassroots army across Florida and all across this country and I ask everyone here come and join us,” he said.
Recent polls have shown that Bush and Rubio combined have support from just 25 percent to 30 percent of the state’s Republicans, leaving room for other candidates to compete. By the time Florida votes, the large Republican field will have narrowed, and whoever carries the state will receive all 99 delegates at stake — a significant boost if the race is still tight.
“Florida’s in play,” said state GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia. “It’s absolutely competitive. Polling shows that. And the race is tightening.”
Rubio was the first to speak and said he was the first candidate to sign the paperwork to get on the Florida primary ballot.
“They asked me to bring my ID, I kid you not,” Rubio said. “I said, ‘Google it. You’ll see. It’s me.'”
Chris Temple, a 46-year-old Florida truck driver and lifelong Republican, said he’s narrowed the choice to Trump or Bush.
“I want someone who will keep jobs in America, fix our budget and the $19 trillion deficit,” said Temple, who wore Trump and Bush campaign buttons on his shirt.