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Sen. Marco Rubio travels to New Hampshire, stoking 2016 speculation

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a leadership forum at the April 25 National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis.

Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a leadership forum at the April 25 National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was set to plant his 2016 flag in New Hampshire on Friday with a trio of events and meetings with state reporters.

The first event was a fundraiser, in Boston actually, for New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was elected in 2010 with Rubio and could be a key ally for the Florida Republican if he runs for president.

In 2013, Rubio used his Reclaim America PAC to run TV ads defending Ayotte for her vote against gun background checks.

Around noon Rubio was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser in Bedford, near Manchester, for the Republican State Committee. Tickets were $500 and the event will feature former Sen. Judd Gregg and a number of local officials.

In the evening Rubio was set to appear at a fundraising dinner for the Rockingham County Republican Committee, where he would deliver a speech that is open to reporters.

In between he planned to meet with local reporters, including a sit-down at the far-reaching TV station WMUR and a meeting with the Union-Leader of Manchester, an influential conservative voice in the state.

Rubio's trip comes as potential Republican candidates have begun to visit the first-in-the nation primary state. Recent visitors have included Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Though Rubio hasn't been to New Hampshire in about two years, GOP leaders say the field is as wide open as it has been in decades.

"I'm pretty sure he's going to be making more trips up there," said Regina Birdsell, chairwoman of the Rockingham GOP. Asked if Rubio is a viable candidate she said, "Only time will tell. There's a lot of them out there. There's a lot we haven't even heard from yet. The Republicans have a really good bench."

Recent polls have shown Paul ahead and Rubio having slid from past surveys. He took a beating from conservative activists for his role in immigration reform. But Andy Smith, a pollster with the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said voters at this early state are likely reacting to name recognition. Paul has made a number of visits and his father, Ron Paul, was a popular former presidential candidate among the state's libertarian-leaning voters.

"Nobody is out of the game," Smith said, adding that immigration is not as hot an issue in the state as other parts of the country. "There are so many Republican candidates that it's not going to be a defining issue. You could alienate a big chunk of the voters because of immigration and still be in very good shape."

Rubio, who turns 43 later this month, has said he'll make a decision by the end of the year or early next year whether to run for president, seek re-election or leave elective politics.

Contact Alex Leary at leary@tampabay.com.

Sen. Marco Rubio travels to New Hampshire, stoking 2016 speculation 05/09/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2014 7:51am]

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