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  1. Florida Politics

Adam C. Smith: Marco Rubio neglected the basics

This Republican primary delivered a gut punch to Florida, which has seen two of its biggest and brightest Republican stars in generations, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, steamrolled by Donald Trump.

The diverse megastate that's supposed to decide presidential elections, offered up top-tier candidates with soaring promise and, it turned out, not much more in this cycle of profound discontent.

Bush seemed to have zero grasp of how much his party had changed since he left Tallahassee in 2007.

Rubio, amazingly, forgot so many of the obvious political lessons of Charlie Crist's 2010 downfall, largely at Rubio's hands.

The parallels to Crist are uncanny: Both focused far more on image than accomplishment. Both had little interest in the jobs they were elected to do, and both tried to spread their support as broadly as possible and neglected to worry about how shallow that support might be.

Rubio, like Crist, forgot that most basic lesson of politics: Don't forget your base.

He preferred to be all things to all people, keeping one foot in the tea party wing of the GOP and another in the establishment wing. He started running for president almost the moment he arrived in Washington, neglecting and antagonizing countless party activists and rank-and-file voters back home — especially when he joined the "Gang of Eight" senators who were trying to reform immigration laws.

Many of Rubio's old admirers were not there for him when he needed them for Florida's must-win primary.

That Rubio lost his home state in such a landslide and Bush had to pull the plug weeks earlier speaks volumes about the state of the Republican Party.

Three years ago this week, the Republican National Committee released its autopsy report on the 2012 election. The so-called Growth and Opportunity Project warned how the party was increasingly out of step with America and its changing population.

"The nation's demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become," wrote the authors, including top Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw, advising that Republicans needed to embrace immigration reform and cool their anti-immigrant rhetoric. "If Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies."

What more could the party ask for in 2016 than a conservative Republican who is fluent in Spanish and part of the Hispanic culture, a Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.

Bush had that last name baggage, but also a record as an ambitious reformer. Rubio, meanwhile, had youth and charisma.

Two years ago, Time magazine placed Rubio on its cover. Headline? "The Republican Savior."

Turned out Republican voters had different ideas than the Republican establishment.

There is no more important and potentially toxic issue in today's GOP primary electorate than immigration. Bush never had to deal with it as governor, and Rubio largely escaped it running for Senate by promising to oppose a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in America.

The rest of the Republican presidential candidates showed little interest in talking about immigration, but Trump turned it — and Rubio's broken promise — into a central part of the primary debate.

"What happened to Rubio? "It's one issue. It's the Gang of Eight issue," Tom Gaitens, a veteran conservative activist in Hillsborough County, said Saturday at a Rubio campaign event in Tampa. "What's ironic is that never in American history has one issue that didn't pass become the issue that's holding the best candidate back."

What drove that candidate, Rubio, into the U.S. Senate six years ago was pent-up frustration with the political establishment and self-serving politicians. By the time Rubio was looking to Florida Republicans to support him in the primary, he had become the leading establishment candidate, dismissing questions about why he missed so many votes and meetings in the Senate.

"I'm supporting Donald Trump because I hate the national Republican Party. They lie to us. They say they're going to do all these things, and they don't do them," said Tampa Republican Ron Farrimond, a retired accountant and loyal Republican voter at Trump's Tampa rally on Monday.

"With the national Republican Party, it's about money in CEO pockets, and it's not about doing what's right, or what's reasonable or what's fair, it's about greed," Farrimond said.

Rubio rode the antiestablishment wave into the U.S. Senate, but he did little to guard against that same wave overtaking him as a presidential candidate.

Not so long ago, most analysts would have pegged Florida as a fairly safe Republican state with Bush or Rubio as the Republican nominee. But not so long ago, few would have dreamed Rubio and Bush would be done by Florida's primary or also-rans.

What if it's Donald Trump fighting Hillary Clinton for Florida in November? Demographic changes in Florida and Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric would seem to give her the edge in this must-win state for Republicans. But the far stronger GOP turnout in Florida on Tuesday suggests Clinton still has serious challenges here.

Huge margin of victory, but no record

Donald Trump's 19-percentage-point margin of victory was large, but in the history of contested Florida Republican primaries, it was narrow:

YearWinnerRunnerupMargin*
2016Donald TrumpMarco Rubio19
2012Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich14
2008John McCainMitt Romney5
2000George W. BushJohn McCain54
1996Robert DoleSteve Forbes37
1992George H.W. BushPat Buchanan36
1988George H.W. BushRobert Dole41
1980Ronald Reagan George H.W. Bush26
1976Gerald FordRonald Reagan6
1972Richard NixonJohn Ashbrook78

* Percentage points

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