Florida freshman Sen. Marco has no plans to endorse anyone in the GOP primary, but inside his Senate office and political operations, his ties to Mitt Romney run deep.
At least six past and current Rubio Senate aides, including chief of staff Cesar Conda and his deputy, Terry Sullivan, worked for Romney's 2008 presidential bid, establishing a direct link and a line of communication between the front-runner for the 2012 GOP nomination and the front-runner in the Republican veepstakes. There's also a trail of fundraisers, donors and consultants who have overlapping relationships with Rubio and Romney.
Several sources close to Rubio downplayed the staff connections as mere coincidence. Nearly all of those staffers had been part of Rubio's resounding 2010 victory over the GOP favorite, then-Gov. Charlie Crist. And during the campaign, Rubio made sure he was surrounded by a talented team of smart, seasoned professionals. The best résumés just happened to come from veterans of Romney '08, the sources said.
Yet Romney is also tapping into Rubio's network in delegate-rich Florida. Jay Demetree, Rubio's former finance chairman, serves in a similar fundraising role for Romney in Florida, while Bertica Cabrera-Morris, Rubio's 2010 Central Florida campaign chairwoman, is a senior adviser to the Romney campaign.
"There is a synergy," Cabrera-Morris, an Orlando-based consultant and lobbyist, told POLITICO. "The people who were with Marco who are now with Romney (believe that) Marco and Romney have most of the same ideals. A lot of us made the decision based on that."
As for Rubio's team, she added, "The cream of the crop of Romney now work for Marco Rubio."
The Rubio-Romney staff connection also highlights a key trait the two men share: They're establishment favorites who are running extremely disciplined operations — one on the presidential stage, the other in the Senate — that stay on message and don't veer wildly from one strategy to the next.
The overlap between Romney and Rubio staffers could only fuel party buzz about a potential Romney-Rubio ticket.
In Michigan's recent Mackinac straw poll, Romney nabbed the top spot with 51 percent, while Rubio was the runaway favorite for vice president. Two polls released last week show Romney narrowly leading the pack in Florida, which announced Friday it was moving up its primary to Jan. 31 to be more influential in the nominating process.
Is Romney-Rubio the dream ticket? "Absolutely," said Cabrera-Morris. "I would like to see Marco Rubio as president of the United States, but I don't think he's ready yet."
There are money connections as well. Some of Romney's top campaign bundlers have contributed to Rubio's campaign. And Rubio's chief fundraiser in 2010, Ann Herberger, served as national finance adviser to Romney's Commonwealth PAC in the 2008 cycle, though she recently signed on as Romney rival Jon Huntsman's senior finance adviser after serving in that role for Tim Pawlenty.
Rubio and Romney haven't always been political allies. As Florida House speaker, Rubio backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the 2008 presidential primary. But in April 2010, as momentum shifted from Crist to Rubio, Romney flew to Florida and endorsed Rubio, just days before Crist announced he would run as an independent in the general election. And that fall, Romney hosted a fundraiser for Rubio in Tampa.
A fierce critic of President Barack Obama's policies, Rubio gave Romney cover when he was asked at the April 2010 endorsement whether he backed the former Massachusetts governor's health care program that Obama has said was the model for his own landmark reform.
"It's a work in progress. There are major distinctions between that and what Obama is trying to do in Washington," Rubio told National Review in a joint interview with Romney. "For one, it didn't raise any taxes. No. 2, it is not adding to our deficit. That is my biggest objection to Obamacare."
With help from some of his top advisers, Rubio has deftly managed to win favor with the tea party, while also appealing to the GOP establishment. Indeed, most of his top advisers are entrenched in the tangled web of Washington strategists, lobbyists and flacks.
In 2010, GOP strategists Todd Harris and Heath Thompson, partners at Something Else Strategies, were advising both Rubio's Senate campaign and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's campaign against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. Perry is now Romney's chief rival in the presidential contest.
Harris and Thompson urged Rubio to hire two Romney veterans they were working with on the Texas race: Sullivan, who headed Romney '08 in South Carolina, and Joe Pounder, who was part of Romney's media team. Harris later introduced Conda to Rubio; the veteran policy wonk and campaign volunteer helped Rubio bone up on policy issues during countless debate prep sessions, a similar role he played for the Romney campaign in 2008.
In turn, Conda helped bring on Sally Canfield, Romney's '08 policy director, who also was a domestic policy adviser for Bush during his 2000 campaign.
"Mitt may not have won in 2008, but everyone agrees that he built a great campaign team, so when we went looking for top talent for Marco, it's not surprising that some of those people had worked for Romney," said Harris, whose firm continues to advise Rubio and manages his new political action committee, Reclaim America PAC.
When it comes to campaign cash, some of Romney's biggest donors this cycle have contributed to Rubio, though the senator's newly created PAC has yet to report any contributions and Senate candidates are not required to release names of their bundlers.
Washington lobbyist Wayne Berman, chairman of Ogilvy Government Relations, has bundled $101,600 for Romney and has given $1,500 to Rubio, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Ogilvy's CEO, Drew Maloney, bundled $56,750 for Romney and contributed $2,400 to Rubio. Other Ogilvy employees have given an additional $4,500 to Rubio.
Rubio in recent months has been elevating his national profile, a move some observers see as a sign he's positioning himself to be tapped as the vice presidential running mate or is planning to launch a White House bid of his own in 2016.
This summer, he gave major speeches on fiscal conservatism and foreign policy at the Ronald Regan Presidential Library in California and at the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina. Last week, he traveled to Libya with John McCain and other Senate foreign policy hawks to meet with rebel leaders. And he's been shopping around a draft of his biography to book publishers, a precursor to any run for national office.
"On several occasions, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has denied that he wants to be on a national ticket next year," the Palm Beach Post wrote in an editorial last week. "His self-promotion says otherwise."
POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.